Select Page

Leslie Ilies

image of leslie ilies
Nationality: Hungarian
Location: Austria • Gunskirchen Concentration Camp • Mauthausen
Experience During Holocaust: Family or Person in Hiding • Forced on a Death March • Liberated • Participated in Investigation of War Criminals • Sent to Concentration Camp • Suffered from Disease • Was a Forced Laborer

Mapping Leslie's Life

Click on the location markers to learn more about Leslie. Use the timeline below the map or the left and right keys on your keyboard to explore chronologically. In some cases the dates below were estimated based on the oral histories.

“We were dirty... we were not fed or we were fed very badly, so many people – when I say “many,” it was not hundreds, but dozens – were dying of exposure and typhus and diarrhea, but not on a very large scale. It still was an event when somebody died, not like later on in Mauthausen when nobody gave a damn if somebody died because everywhere, everyday there were hundreds of people who were dying. You couldn’t just get upset for everybody unless it was something very close to you.” - Leslie Ilies

Read Leslie's Oral History Transcripts

Read the transcripts by clicking the red plus signs below.

Tape 1 - Side 1

YOUNG: This is Evelyn Young interviewing Leslie Ilies on September 24, 1986, for the Oral History Project.
What I’d like to ask is more from your old family history. If you could just give me some background about your family in Budapest.
ILIES: All this is in my talk.
YOUNG: Okay, well the talk is…
ILIES: My mother’s, my father’s profession…
YOUNG: Uh-huh…
ILIES: I don’t see any point in repeating the same thing.
YOUNG: Okay, you – well. There are people who are going to be listening to your tape and not necessarily reading the speech, so maybe there – if you could just tell me about your family.
ILIES: Okay, I was born in Budapest in 1922. My father was a businessman and my mother was a homemaker.
YOUNG: Uh-huh.
ILIES: Both my parents are passed away at the time of this interview.
YOUNG: Uh-huh.
ILIES: They had not been in a concentration camp. I was the only one in the family who has been in a concentration camp.
YOUNG: Were you the only child?
ILIES: I was the only child.
YOUNG: Uh-huh. How was it – did you grow up in Budapest?
ILIES: I grew up in Budapest, and Switzerland, and Romania.
YOUNG: Okay, can you go back a little? From what age did you…
ILIES: Yes, I lived in Budapest until my – I was six years old when I went to Switzerland where I completed grade school.
YOUNG: Did you go with your family or…
ILIES: My mother.
YOUNG: With your mother?
ILIES: With my mother, yes, and later on, when I was 10 years old – no 12 years old, I went to Romania where all my family lived. And this is where I completed my high school.
YOUNG: Uh-huh, this was kind of unusual for a family to send a child to Switzerland for education?
ILIES: Yes, this was kind of unusual. My mother was widowed and she was sick living in Switzerland, so I went to Switzerland and was in a boarding school for four years.
YOUNG: Was it a Jewish school?
ILIES: No, it was not a Jewish school. It was – everybody welcome.
YOUNG: Okay, so you learned at an early age to speak Hungarian?
ILIES: Hungarian, German, French, English.
YOUNG: What was your Jewish education?
ILIES: None whatsoever. I was – I didn’t receive any kind of Jewish education. I received my Jewish education in the concentration camp.
YOUNG: So were you – would you describe yourself growing up as a secular Jew?
ILIES: Yes, definitely…definitely.
YOUNG: What – you said you got your Jewish education in a…
ILIES: Well, in the camp I…not in terms of religion per se, but there I was quite convinced that I am a Jew and I knew what to be a Jew means. I was still not praying. I’m not praying today either, but this has nothing to do with my Jewishness.
YOUNG: Was your lack of education because you came from a non-practicing home? Was this the way your grandparents were?
ILIES: I don’t know about my grandparents, but my parents were not practicing.
YOUNG: Uh-huh, so you don’t know much about your grandparents because they – what?
ILIES: They were dead by the time I was born. I know about them from the stories from my family. On the side of my maternal grandfather, he was a businessman and his wife, my grandmother, was a homemaker. On the side of my father, he was a businessman, quite a wealthy businessman in Budapest, and his wife was a homemaker. I can trace my ancestors to the early part of the 19th century because my great-grandfather was an M.D. in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
YOUNG: Uh-huh, so your family was secular – secularized from the 1800s, or…?
ILIES: I really couldn’t tell you this, but all I can say is that my parents were not practicing Jews.
YOUNG: What kinds of friendships did you have as a child growing up?
ILIES: I had Jews and non-Jews. In Switzerland I was the only Jew in the boarding school. But later on, in my school years, I had both Jewish and non-Jewish friends.
YOUNG: How did you know you were Jewish when you didn’t practice and…
ILIES: Well, I knew that we are Jews. I was told that I am a Jew and Hitler propaganda was very powerful even in my grade school years. And there were some Germans in the boarding school who made me aware of the fact that they are antisemitic, and they hate Jews even if they are making sort of an exception with me because I was in that boarding school.
YOUNG: Did you have any kind of personal experiences of…?
ILIES: No, not when I was a small kid, no. In – later, in high school, I had experiences with Romanian boys who were members of the Romanian Iron Guard which was the Romanian Fascist party, and one of them beat me up once. And they were – they had an insulting behavior toward everybody who was a Jew. I was not the only Jew in my class. We were some 10 out of 40 which means 25% – 25 or – yes, 25% of the class was Jewish, so we’re all treated as a group by some of our Christian colleagues in an insulting way. And even some of the teachers were persecuting Jews. Even if he knew very well, they were – you would receive lower grades, and they were making fun of you because you are a Jew and you have a Jewish name. Oh, by the way, my name was Jewish. Ilies is a Hungarian name which I adopted later on in life, but my original name was Ellenstein.
YOUNG: Ellenstein?
ILIES: Uh-huh.
YOUNG: And your first name?
ILIES: It was when I was in Hungary, Laszlo.
YOUNG: Laszlo.
ILIES: Which is in America equivalent to Leslie.
YOUNG: Leslie. Let me backtrack. You finished your grade school education in Switzerland. So, how old were you when you went to Romania?
ILIES: I was 12 years old.
YOUNG: And your mother moved with you?
ILIES: I’m sorry, I was 10 years old.
YOUNG: You were 10 years old?
ILIES: 10 years old.
YOUNG: So you went to a boarding school from six to 10?
ILIES: From six to 10, and then I went to Romania where I lived for nine years, so I finished there my high school, and I couldn’t continue to college because by then anti-Jewish laws forbade Jews to enter college.
YOUNG: Now this was, uh –
ILIES: This was in 1940.
YOUNG: ’40, so Romania – by that time Romania was being governed by Fascists government?
ILIES: Yes, because – exactly.
YOUNG: And the laws – it wasn’t – I’m trying to – you had finished your high school before the Fascists came to power or…?
ILIES: No, they were already in power when I passed my uh, what’s in Europe a Baccalaureate examination. They were already in power.
YOUNG: Where were you living in Romania?
ILIES: In Bucharest.
YOUNG: In Bucharest.
ILIES: It’s the capital of Romania.
YOUNG: Okay, how did your family end up? You sound like you moved from Hungary, Budapest, to Switzerland and to Romania.
ILIES: My father died when I was six, and I was raised by my uncle who was my mother’s brother who lived in Romania. So we moved to Romania to be with him.
YOUNG: I see. So, you lived with your uncle and your mother in…
ILIES: In Romania.
YOUNG: In Romania did you have problems adjusting, living from…
ILIES: Yes, I did in Romania. I had problems adjusting because I didn’t know the language, and kids are very cruel, and they were making fun of me because my accent was kind of funny. Later on this has disappeared, but when I came to Romania I had to enter high school. It was difficult for the first two years or three years even.
YOUNG: Was your family very – were they different Jewishly than the family in Hungary? Was there more Jewish identification in Bucharest?
ILIES: No, no.
YOUNG: No, it was the same?
ILIES: The same – the same background from a religious point of view.
YOUNG: Did your family observe any Jewish holidays? You know, like Rosh Hashanah or…
ILIES: Only Rosh Hashanah…
YOUNG: Passover?
ILIES: Only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
YOUNG: How did you observe it?
ILIES: By fasting and I – we didn’t go to the synagogue, only my uncle went to the synagogue – not on a regular – but every once in a while he would go to the synagogue.
YOUNG: Uh-huh, and Passover?
ILIES: No, it wasn’t observed – only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
YOUNG: Was there in your family a lot of intermarriage…?
ILIES: No, there was no intermarriage at all. I am the first member of the family who – I married a Gentile woman. But nobody else in the family was intermarried.
YOUNG: So, you all knew you were Jewish but practiced it in a way that didn’t involve synagogue attendance or…
ILIES: Yes, that’s correct actually.
YOUNG: In the school, was – I know that in German schools there is religious instruction for the Christians and for Jews. Was there any kind of religious instruction?
ILIES: There was religious instruction but you were not obliged to take it.
YOUNG: Okay, so, what did you do?
ILIES: Well, I didn’t take any kind of religious instructions until it became mandatory, and then I took Orthodox instruction because it was the easiest. I didn’t have to go out of school, and so I didn’t have any kind of Jewish religious education.
YOUNG: When Hitler came to power in ’33, were you still in Switzerland?
ILIES: I was in Romania.
YOUNG: Can you describe your family’s reaction or you as a child what…
ILIES: Well, we were very scared because my uncle had friends in Germany, and they came to visit us and my uncle went to visit them. He was a bachelor and he had a girlfriend, a German – I mean a Jewish German girlfriend in Berlin, so we knew on a firsthand basis what was happening there in ’33, ’34. Later on we lost contact with his friends of Berlin and so we knew just what everybody else knew from the newspapers, and from the radio, that pogroms were going on in Germany. And of course, Kristallnacht was a major event and it scared us because it immediately had an impact in Romania. The Fascists became more active. They had newspapers, very virulently antisemitic newspapers on the market, and they became even more savage in their antisemitic propaganda. In the elections of 1939, the Fascist party was the third biggest party. So, and it was – you knew that it’s not safe to go on certain streets where they had their officers, and students would be beated up in the universities – I mean Jewish students. One of my teachers who was a Jew was also beaten up in front of our school. So, I mean it was more and more oppressive and you felt more and more isolated. And this came to a climax in 1940, when King Karl of Romania abdicated, and the government was taken over by Marshal Antonescu – this was his name, who was a Fascist, and he was the leader of Romania until 1944, when Romania signed a peace – an armistice with Russia.
YOUNG: What was it like for your uncle with his business?
ILIES: My uncle was an engineer at the Romanian railways. He was dismissed in 1940, and when in 1941, I think, or 1942 – no, in 1941 there was a shortage of engineers, so they hired him back in a – how do you put it – in a lower position. He was a manager before, and then a counselor – now he was a simple engineer working like a beginner, but he was very happy because he had a job.
YOUNG: What was it like – you were still living with your uncle at this time?
ILIES: Yes, I lived with my uncle until 1941 when I returned to Hungary.
YOUNG: Okay. Now, you finished your high school education…
ILIES: In 1940.
YOUNG: In 1940, and at that time there were quotas against Jews.
ILIES: There were – there were – well, it was not quotas, there was nullus, nullus. In other words, no Jew was admitted in the universities.
YOUNG: It was written down as…
ILIES: It was a law that no Jews were admitted to universities, and I was very unhappy because I was a good student and I wanted to continue my education, but I couldn’t do it. I did it after 1945.
YOUNG: At the time when you were wanting to go to university, were all the doors closed to your leaving the country – like maybe going back to Switzerland or going to Australia?
ILIES: Well, I could go back to – we didn’t think of it, as a matter of fact. It wasn’t closed until 1940, it wasn’t closed. We could have gone. But, for some reason – I was 18 years old – people were not so much aware of things happening around them as they are today. And as many other Jews in Europe we thought – I mean this is what I know in hindsight – we thought that this is something that is temporary and it will pass.
YOUNG: Uh-huh.
ILIES: And it passed for the Romanian Jews. They were not hurt by the Nazis, not in a physical sense. They were not exterminated; they were not taken to camps, and so on. But, of course, we know what happened to all the other Jews in Europe.
YOUNG: What made you – at what point did you decide to go back to Hungary?
ILIES: In 1940 – I was a Hungarian citizen all the time I stayed in Romania, and in 1941 – the Romanian police approved every year my stay in Romania – had refused to renew it. So, I had a choice – my only real choice was to go back to Hungary because in Hungary at that time there was antisemitism, but it was not in a virulent form. It was – there were certain anti-Jewish laws, but the Jews were not bothered too much. They could still continue to have their businesses, and people could go to – they could even go to college, a small number of them.
YOUNG: So was it a family decision?
ILIES: It was a family decision. It wasn’t my decision. I was too young to make such a decision, and it was a family decision and I agreed with it and I went along and I didn’t think – I thought that they had taken the right decision. Later on it has proved to be almost the end of my life, but this was something that they could not foresee. Nobody could foresee what happened. I mean, in 1941 nobody knew that there was such a thing as a “Final Solution” for all the Jews in Europe.
YOUNG: But the war had already started in Europe.
ILIES: The war has already started – in 1939, yes. And there was a pogrom in Romania in 1940 when hundreds of Jews were killed in the forest surrounding Bucharest. And then the Fascists who perpetrated these horrors were – sent to trial and were sentenced to many, many years of prison. So, we had the impression that it is a temporary folly.
YOUNG: Did anyone that you were in contact with – were they victims of the pogrom?
ILIES: No, no.
YOUNG: It was something…
ILIES: It – I mean there were hundreds of Jews in Bucharest who were killed, but I didn’t know them.
YOUNG: Okay. So were most of the ones that were killed identified as Orthodox Jews or…?
ILIES: There was no such identification. They were Jews, period. Nobody bothered to find out if they are Orthodox Jews or – to begin with, there was no such thing as Reform Jews in Romania. There are Hasidic Jews who live in the northern part of Transylvania, but there are no Reform Jews. They’re just Jews, period. They would be something in the midway between Reform and Orthodox Jews in the States.
YOUNG: No, I’m just wondering how those hundreds of people were picked out and killed.
ILIES: Oh, they were picked up at random, mostly from the Jewish neighborhoods in Bucharest. We’re not living in a Jewish neighborhood, so we were kind of spared. But, they would enter houses and take people out on the streets and take them with trucks to the nearest forest and shoot them.
YOUNG: So, how did you and your family feel living in a non-Jewish area?
ILIES: We had no – I mean – there was no – we felt comfortable. There was no discrimination against us. We had – our next door neighbor was also Jewish and we knew him. I had another neighbor who was Gentile who was a friend of mine. We went to the same school. So we didn’t feel in any way singled out because we were Jews.
YOUNG: So, you were able to finish your high school and get your diploma without any incidents.
ILIES: Well, I had, as I told you, that I was beaten up, but it happened only once and I had to put up with derisive observations and remarks from some of my Christian colleagues. But all in all it wasn’t – it was not really traumatic.
YOUNG: But they didn’t hold up your diploma, did they?
ILIES: No, it went absolutely according to rule and I was the third in my – you know, they grade your diploma – and I was the third from the top in spite of the fact that I was Jewish. So I cannot, I can’t say that school officially discriminated against Jews. Of course, after 1940, after 1940, yes – mine was the last class that was allowed to go to a non-denominational school. After me all the Jews went to Jewish schools.
YOUNG: I see. What was the name of your school?
ILIES: Lazar, Lyceum Lazar. He was a Romanian scientist. Lyceum was a Romanian name for high school.
YOUNG: I see. So you got – you received a classical education?
ILIES: Classical education, yes.
YOUNG: What career goals did you have?
ILIES: I wanted to be a lawyer.
YOUNG: A lawyer. So when you left to go to Hungary, was it with the intention of applying to a university in Hungary?
ILIES: I knew that I can’t. I mean, the number of Jews admitted to Hungarian universities was so tiny that I knew that I don’t stand a chance. You had to know really big shots to be admitted. It wasn’t based on tests. It was purely and simply on who you did know. And since I didn’t know anybody in view of the best accepted aunt of mine, I knew that I don’t stand a chance. No, I went there just because they told me that I cannot stay anymore in Bucharest, so I went back to Hungary where I was a citizen and I was a photo – I learned the photography business because I couldn’t go to college. I had to do something, and I learned the photography business and I worked as a photographer in Budapest between 1941 and 1943, when I entered the Hungarian labor force – labor formations. I was supposed to be drafted in the army, but being a Jew you were not drafted in the army, you were drafted in the forced labor of the army which was only made up of Jews who wear a yellow armband and no uniform.
YOUNG: Did – was there a way that you could have escaped being…?
ILIES: No, there was no way. There was no way. My name – I mean, I was born in Budapest so automatically my name came up in the draft.
YOUNG: But how did they distinguish you as a Jew?
ILIES: By my name. And, in Hungary everybody had to give his – in my birth certificate there is a mention that I am of the Jewish religion. So they knew it.
YOUNG: I see. So this was all officially – you – they had a list of all the people who were citizens of Budapest or Hungary, and they went down a list of men and picked out the Jewish ones for this forced labor battalion?
ILIES: Yes, exactly, yes.
YOUNG: How were you informed of this?
ILIES: I was – they sent us a letter, a form letter telling me I have to show up – I even remember the date of October 4, 1943 – I had to be in – on a military base outside of – not in Budapest – Komarom, which is four hours train drive from Budapest. It is – it was a former Czech territory.
YOUNG: Before you were drafted for this, what was life like for you in Budapest between ’41 and ’43?
ILIES: I had a normal life except that I knew only Jews. I mean, at that time Jews were socially isolated. It was not like in Romania where I had non – where I had Gentile friends. But of course it could be also a result of the fact that I came to Budapest in 1941. I didn’t know anybody and the people I was introduced to were only Jews. I didn’t have a Hungarian school background so I didn’t know kids from school or grade school or from kindergarten. And, I worked for a Jewish photographer. All my colleagues were Jewish then and I can say that I didn’t know any non-Jew.
YOUNG: Did you live with your aunt?
ILIES: I lived with an aunt of mine and a cousin of my mother in Budapest. Was also Jewish. They were not practicing but, as I say, I didn’t even know a single Gentile – not that I can recall.
YOUNG: And your mother stayed in Bucharest?
ILIES: My mother stayed in Bucharest because as a woman she was allowed to stay in Romania in spite of the fact that she was a Hungarian citizen. But as a man, they would have interned me in a camp if I would have stayed in Romania.
YOUNG: And what happened to your mother?
ILIES: My mother stayed in Romania, remarried with a Romanian citizen, so from this point of view she had no problems, and really nothing happened to them. In Bucharest the Jews were – it’s – I think Bucharest is the only big European city where the Jews were not harmed. The men had to do some snow shoveling in winter, and there were some labor camps not far from Bucharest, but compared to what happened to the rest of European Jewry, this was peanuts.
YOUNG: So your mother was able to survive the war.
ILIES: Oh yes, she survived the war in her usual surroundings, in her usual upper middle class style of life. I can say that she didn’t even know that there was a war going on.
YOUNG: And there was no way she, by being married to a Romanian citizen, could have sponsored you back to Romania?
ILIES: No, because based on the laws of that era, there was no such possibility.
YOUNG: You say between ’41 and ’43 you led a so-called normal life.
ILIES: Yes, I lived a normal life. I was a photographer and I taught English and French…

Tape 1 - Side 2

YOUNG: 9-24-86 – okay, we’ll continue with this.
ILIES: I had a, I had a decent income. I had no obligations. Of course I was not married. I could dress myself decently, I subscribed to the – I had a subscription to the opera, to the National Theatre of Budapest.
YOUNG: So the entertainment was basically open to everyone; there were no restrictions?
ILIES: No restrictions of any kind. The restrictions began in 1944 when all the Jews were obliged to live in a ghetto and they couldn’t leave the ghetto. But this was in 1944, and by that time I was already in a camp.
YOUNG: I see. What kind of photographer were you, society, wedding pictures?
ILIES: Society, wedding pictures, portraits.
YOUNG: Was it mostly restricted to Jewish clientele?
ILIES: No, no, it had a mixed clientele. It had a huge clientele, as a matter of fact. He was a very wealthy man. And just to give you an idea, he had some 15 salesmen who were working for him – which were – for a photographer – it’s something unusual.
YOUNG: Uh-huh, so was the – the restrictions just weren’t there. People were getting married.
ILIES: Everyone was having a normal social life with certain restrictions. Jews couldn’t go to the universities. Jews were not hired in white collar jobs. If they were already in a white collar job, they couldn’t exceed a certain percentage – I think it was four percent. I mean, a company couldn’t have more than four percent Jewish white collar employees.
YOUNG: Uh-huh.
ILIES: They were no – Jews were not – couldn’t be, couldn’t be in politics. They couldn’t be in the newspaper field. They couldn’t be in the theatre. So there were restrictions, but Jews managed to have a normal life within the limits of the existing restrictions, you see.
YOUNG: What was the feeling with the war going on? What was the mood of the people during those years?
ILIES: Well, at the beginning, of course, we were very concerned – I mean we were very worried – that would be the right word, because the Germans were victors all over Europe. And we didn’t know what they were doing to the Jews because at that point in time they – the concentration camps were unknown to us. We didn’t know there was such a thing as concentration camps.
YOUNG: There was nothing in the Jewish press that…?
ILIES: There was nothing in the Jewish press because I subscribed to the Budapest Jewish newspaper – I can’t remember the name of the newspaper any more. And – but there was nothing hinting – there were no hints that there are concentration camps and that Jews are being deported. We knew that there are antisemitic laws which resembled more or less to the laws existing in Hungary. We knew that in France – in occupied France, the Jews were in a very bad situation with not too many specific details. We knew that all the Parisienne Jews tend to flee to Southern France which was unoccupied at that time. But this was – it was not something specific. It was not – we didn’t know – as again, we didn’t know the Jews were being deported.
YOUNG: Were there any Jews that came to Budapest, like from Poland or from…
ILIES: Yes, they came – not Jews – I didn’t meet any Jews from Poland. I knew many Jews from Slovakia – Czechoslovakia. But those Jews who were in Budapest were not Czechs. They were Slovakian Jews from around Bratislava, and they came to Budapest, but even they didn’t – they knew that some – that the Slav Jews were taken away, but this was later on. This was already at the end of 1942.
But they didn’t know where they were going and what was happening to them. We – I really can say that I was first aware of the existence of concentration camps when I was in a concentration camp. And I knew that Jews were being deported from Hungary in May of 1944, when I was in a forced labor battalion and when – I didn’t have relatives in Hungary excepting that aunt of mine who was living in Budapest. The Budapest Jews were not deported, but Jews from all the other towns and villages of Hungary were taken away and sent somewhere. We didn’t know where. This was in May of 1944.
YOUNG: Well, let’s backtrack. You were called to the labor battalion…
ILIES: In 1943.
YOUNG: 1943, in October.
ILIES: In October of 1943.
YOUNG: Okay. And did you feel – I mean did they say it would be for a specific period?
ILIES: Oh yes, we knew that we are conscripted for three years.
YOUNG: Three years, okay. So you sort of had – you had to give notice at your job?
ILIES: Oh yes, I gave notice at my job.
YOUNG: So it was like being drafted into an army?
ILIES: Yes, exactly. From this point a few years. But – and then, then we – as from October 1, was in the army, in the battalion, in the work battalions of the army, and there it was very, very difficult. This is the first time that I really knew what rough and a brutal antisemitism means.
YOUNG: Can you, you know, describe a little bit of how large was your group?
ILIES: Yes, we were 120 boys in a battalion. We were sent to Transylvania, which was then part of Hungary, and we worked in – we worked in a camp where we were digging tunnels in a mountain where the Germans were installing gasoline tanks.
YOUNG: Were the German troops there too?
ILIES: Not at the beginning. At the beginning it was strictly a Hungarian operation but for the German army.
YOUNG: It was the Hungarian Fascist army that was controlling…?
ILIES: They were controlling, they were guarding us; they were brutalizing us. I mean, we were beaten, we were overworked. We worked – how many hours – we worked from six o’clock in the morning until six in the evening.
YOUNG: Were you in barracks or what was your…?
ILIES: We were in barracks. The barracks were clean, the food was decent, but we were – people were beaten and insulted. And we were all the time guarded by soldiers with guns – with armed soldiers with guns and bayonets. And the work was very, very hard, especially on somebody like me who was not a weight lifter.
YOUNG: So, physically you – what happened if one of the men got sick? Was there medical treatment?
ILIES: There was, yes. We had a doctor, a Jewish doctor and we had a sick – they called it – it wasn’t a hospital – it was a barrack where you could go if you were very sick. But, very few people were very sick. We were very young. We were healthy. We were well fed. We were overworked but we were working all the time out in the fresh air in the mountains. And, I was very healthy, I was never sick. And very few people were sick, so…
YOUNG: There was no – like contagious diseases.
ILIES: No contagious diseases…no, no, nothing of that kind except for the fact that we were insulted and every once in a while beaten – not in a very severe way.
YOUNG: Uh-huh.
ILIES: I mean, it wasn’t a question of, “Am I going to survive the beating?” There were only a few slaps and nothing of a Nazi, German Nazi type. We thought it’s terrible but we didn’t know how good we had it because this was in 1941, when Dachau and Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and all the other camps were in full gear but we had no idea that they existed.
YOUNG: Were you able to communicate to your family at that time? Were you able to receive letters from home and…?
YOUNG: …and write letters?
ILIES: Yes, yes, not to Romania, just to my aunt in Budapest.
YOUNG: You couldn’t communicate to Romania at all?
YOUNG: So at that time you didn’t know what was happening with your mother?
ILIES: No, I didn’t know anything farther between 1941 and 1945. I had no news about my family. They had no news about me. So we were completely separated.
YOUNG: Was the Red Cross at all involved in your…?
ILIES: No, not, not at all.
YOUNG: If you had any – there was no one to complain to if…?
ILIES: There was no one to complain to. We were on our own.
YOUNG: I see. Were there any men that decided to leave – I mean to escape from the forced battalion?
ILIES: Yes, in 1944, yes, when we were taken to Budapest and when it was obvious that we were going to be deported to Germany. Then some boys escaped. I don’t know what happened to them. I lost track of them.
YOUNG: So you don’t know whether they succeeded in…
ILIES: I have no idea.
YOUNG: Okay. When were you informed that you were going to be deported to Germany?
ILIES: We were not told, but the rumor had it in 1944. The Russian armies occupied Transylvania and they were already surrounding Budapest. And then we Jews, we were packed on trains…
YOUNG: Wait, let’s backtrack. You’re – in the forced battalion you were in Transylvania.
ILIES: Yes, in Transylvania.
YOUNG: And how did you get back to Budapest?
ILIES: I believe we were loaded in trains and just shipped back to Hungary.
YOUNG: Were you given any information that this was you, your labor was no longer needed?
ILIES: No, no – no. We were told that we are going to work in another spot in the work battalions. We knew that we were going to go to Germany or Austria. It was unclear at that time. Nobody told us but we knew in October, 1944, when we were in Budapest, we are not working, we are just loafing around in a big Hungarian kaserne, that something is happening and that they are going to ship us out of Hungary.
YOUNG: At that time, since you were back in Budapest, were you able to get in touch with your aunt?
ILIES: No, no. She was already in a ghetto. She was in hiding in the – I didn’t know that she was in hiding but I couldn’t get in touch with her because I couldn’t get out from the kaserne, which was guarded.
YOUNG: So the Jewish civilian population at the time was already in the ghetto and they were starting to be deported?
ILIES: Not the Hungarian – the Budapest Jews were not deported until – let’s see – this was in October of 1944. I think in December of 1944, a group of 20,000 Budapest Jews were marched in the direction of Mauthausen where I was in the camp. Very few of them made it because it was winter and most of them died of exposure or couldn’t walk anymore and they were shot. I knew this because I met them, the ones who survived, I met them in Mauthausen, and this was, I think in December of 1944, but this was just 20,000 of them and in Budapest there were well over 200,000 Jews.
YOUNG: So, October, ’44, you were in Budapest in the…?
ILIES: In Budapest and we were shipped to Austria in October of 1944. And my first place where I worked was on the Hungarian-Austrian border at Drukendalatah which is a small village right on the border, I mean a few minutes away from the border. And we worked for several weeks digging anti-tank trenches.
YOUNG: Were you still being supervised by Hungarian troops?
ILIES: No, I was supervised by SS troops.
YOUNG: Germans?
ILIES: Germans.
YOUNG: Was your treatment then…?
ILIES: It was very bad, it was very bad then, but it was…(INTERRUPTION) it was, it was what they call an arbeitskommando. It was not a concentration camp.
YOUNG: So where were you housed?
ILIES: We were housed in stables in this village – huge stables – no heating, no beds, no nothing.
YOUNG: And this was already – well, October would have been cold by –
ILIES: It was very cold and we stayed there for – until late November, so it was a very, very cold winter. No heating. We slept on straw which was warehoused in those stables. It was not stables for animals. They were stables for warehousing straw – huge stables and we couldn’t – we could barely wash ourselves. There was no water until the very end when there was some water facilities, but people were already dying of typhus. Yes, and we were dirty, and it was – we were not fed or we were fed very badly, so many people – when I say “many,” it was not hundreds, but dozens – were dying of exposure and typhus and diarrhea, but not on a very large scale. It still was an event when somebody died, not like later on in Mauthausen, when nobody gave a damn if somebody died because everywhere, everyday there were hundreds of people who were dying. You couldn’t just get upset for everybody unless it was something very close to you.
YOUNG: Did you have the same group of…?
ILIES: No, well we had the same group of people, but then we were already mixed with others because there were, I guess – I just can guess because I’ve never seen figures printed – there were thousands of people working in the same area. It was on the field outside the village where we were working on those trenches and as far as we could see there were people digging those trenches. So I imagine that there were thousands working. And after the war I knew that there were thousands working because they were digging those trenches all along the Austrian border in order to prevent invasion by the Russians.
YOUNG: At that time were you getting any news about the front where the Russians were – what the situation was?
ILIES: Yes, yes. We managed to get hold of German newspapers, not on a regular basis, but every once in a while. Either – there were some people who were taking great risks. They, they would – we, we were – all clothes were civilian clothes, so it was kind of risky but it was possible to enter the village after dark. We had – the stables were not guarded. So a few people took risks on going into the village, begging for food and they would lay their hands on newspapers, and from the German newspapers we knew where the front was. We even had discussion groups late in the evening when we came back from work. Somebody would give us a synopsis of, of, of the war – of the way the war was going on. I mean, we knew at that time that the invasion of Normandy had already taken place. We knew that the Allies, the Americans are in Europe and they were somewhere – they were already in Germany or very near to the German border. We knew that the Russians have liberated Russian and they were at the German borders. So we knew that the end was nearing. We didn’t – we were not sure, but we were hoping that we might survive.
YOUNG: The mood was optimistic?
ILIES: The mood was optimistic but it was a long range. In the long range we were optimistic but in the short range we were freezing; we were starving. People were beaten to death at that time already for the slightest item. For instance, we were working in a forest, cutting trees and transporting them in certain places where they were assembled and you had 10 people carrying a big tree. We were not fed, we were freezing; we were not washed. I mean, we were exhausted. Sometimes you couldn’t carry that tree and somebody would fall during carrying that tree. The SA would beat them to death under the pretense that they were sabotaging the German war effort.
YOUNG: Were these SA people Austrian?
ILIES: Austrians and Germans, mostly Austrians, and they were fierceful. The Austrians were more dangerous than the Germans.
YOUNG: But they didn’t guard the stables at night?
ILIES: They didn’t guard the stables at night.
YOUNG: That seems kind of unusual.
ILIES: Nevertheless, it was – this was a fact. We didn’t dare go out because the whole village was filled with German troops, SA and SS. So it was a great risk to go out because they would shoot you, no questions asked. They would recognize that you were a Jew because you were dressed in a different way. You were bearded; you were dirty. I mean it was obvious from where you were coming.
YOUNG: But if a few of the men were able to get newspapers and food, then there were some civilians who were supportive?
ILIES: Yes, there were some civilians – I don’t know, I didn’t go out, so I don’t know. But obviously there were some civilians who were supportive. I would say very few of them because it was – I couldn’t say that somebody was going out every night and came back with food. Every once in a while, somebody would get food and newspapers.
YOUNG: And you stayed in this village until December?
ILIES: Until November.
YOUNG: November.
ILIES: End of November, something like that – end of November, and then we were shipped to Mauthausen.
YOUNG: By railroad?
ILIES: No, on that we marched from Bruck-an-der-Leitha to the Danube. Here, I will show you on the map.
YOUNG: Okay.
ILIES: So you were marched from Bruck-an-der-Leitha to Deutschaltemburg, which was a small town on the Danube near Vienna and we were…
YOUNG: How many miles or kilometers would you say that was that you were marched? Was it like two days?
ILIES: Well, it was, it was a two days march. It was a two day march, day and night.
YOUNG: Day and night.
ILIES: Day and night. And then we were – it’s not here. We were – oh, here it is. It’s Mauthausen, it’s not on the map but it’s on the Danube near Linz. So from Deutschaltemburg we were shipped on barges to Mauthausen which was near Linz, less than two miles near Linz. It was a six day trip with no food, no water, no nothing. It was…
YOUNG: How many people were on a barge?
ILIES: Hundreds.
YOUNG: Hundreds?
ILIES: Hundreds. I didn’t count them but there were hundreds and there were two barges. Hundreds of people starving and sick because people were already – some people were already very, very sick, because everybody was coming from the area where we were digging trenches for two months, and we were already undernourished and we were working in the rain and in freezing temperatures. And, as I say, it was a very – it was a very cold winter; we had snow already in November. And we received – we were – the food we were receiving was, was – I mean it was a starvation diet. We were receiving a black soup in the morning, another soup with sugar beets at lunch, and another black soup in the evening which was so-called coffee, but it didn’t have any taste and we received in the evening a piece of bread. Sometimes, sometimes it was a great feast when you received a little piece of sausage. And we worked from four o’clock in the morning until six in the evening, sometimes even later. And after the two day march from Bruck-an-der-Leitha to Deutschaltemburg, people were absolutely exhausted, absolutely exhausted, and there was no food distribution those six days, so we were purely and simply starving.
YOUNG: Did people actually die on the barges?
ILIES: Yes, very many people died on the barge, people who were already sick of typhus and dysentery, and there were corpses all over.
YOUNG: When you were on the river did you see civilian population?
ILIES: Yes, we saw civilian population because we stopped during the night, we stopped, and we saw civilian population, and some German, Austrian Jews who were on the barge with us managed to escape.
YOUNG: How did they do that?
ILIES: They just – it was – I mean, if you would see it in a film you would say it is not – it doesn’t happen in real life. The way they were dressed, with yellow stars on their breasts, they just left the barge, hid in a bombed out house. This I know from stories that I heard after the war. And they marched from that particular place to the outskirts of Vienna, 20 or 25 of them, led by a perfect German speaking Jew who presented himself at various military stations, reporting that it’s a Jewish work formation who has been ordered to go to Vienna to help with the cleaning of the rubble around Vienna as a result of bombing in Vienna. It was already – I mean, this was happening in November, December, Vienna with Russian troops were very near, so it was a state of chaos.
YOUNG: So it was possible for people…
ILIES: It was possible. It was possible. It’s a miracle that these people escaped and then they hid for several days in a bombed out house in Vienna, and waited until the Russian troops entered Vienna. And they escaped, all of them, 20 or 25. So they escaped.
YOUNG: But you didn’t actually know these people?
ILIES: I knew them, I knew them, but of course it was done in great secret. I didn’t know – I mean we knew that somebody – that they had left the next day when they were already not on the barge.
YOUNG: Were the SA troops counting people and…?
ILIES: They were counting when we entered the barges. They didn’t count us during the six days when we were on the Danube – they didn’t count us.
YOUNG: So you arrived at Mauthausen.
ILIES: In Mauthausen in the early part of December. I don’t remember the day anymore. And we thought everything was very confusing. That part is – it’s a blur in my mind.
YOUNG: Well, you were hungry and exhausted…
ILIES: I was hungry, I was exhausted, but I was healthy. I was not sick. I, I even had a very good friend…

Tape 2 - Side 1

YOUNG: Okay, if you want to begin from where we left off.
ILIES: Yes, okay. We arrived in Mauthausen in the early part of November. The sight of the camp was awesome. It was – there was huge, barbed wire fences with – what do you call those –
YOUNG: Guard towers?
ILIES: Yes, there were guard towers and SS men all over the place with bloodhounds. Everywhere you could see were people carrying arms – guns, I mean. Machine guns usually, and a lot of inmates in striped garbs, in terrible shape, emaciated from starvation. And it was in the evening, so the lights were on – the search lights were also on to make sure that no one escaped in spite of the fact that you didn’t really have anywhere to escape.
YOUNG: Was Mauthausen in a forest or an area…?
ILIES: It was in a hilly area. The forest around the camp was cut down so that you could see for a vast – you could not escape because there was no forest in the immediate vicinity where to hide. In all its years of existence and in the time I have been there, I’ve never heard of any escapes from Mauthausen. And later on, after the war, I read about Mauthausen and there are no instances reported of escapes from the camp because of the crowds in the camp, crowds caused by the huge influx of D.P.s from all over the camps surrounding Mauthausen. At the beginning we didn’t live in barracks, we lived under huge tents, and since it was winter, late fall, and it was very – as I already said, I think – a very cold winter, you were practically freezing day and night. In Mauthausen I had – for awhile we didn’t work because it was – the chaos was already beginning.
YOUNG: The what?
ILIES: The chaos.
YOUNG: Chaos.
ILIES: The chaos was already beginning to be felt. There were many people coming in. Everyday some people were marched towards other camps. Mauthausen was supposed to be the camp where inmates from German concentration camps were supposed to be evacuated before the liberating American and British armies. On the other hand, in Austria there was the pressure of the Russian army. So at one point they really didn’t know where to evacuate these people, and for some odd reason they didn’t decide to kill them in spite of the fact that there were standing orders to kill all of the inmates. This was known after the war that the commander of Mauthausen concentration camp had – did receive orders to kill all of the inmates existing in the camp, but he didn’t carry out these orders.
After a few days of inactivity I worked in a stone quarry, which is a famous part of the Mauthausen story. It’s a quarry within the camp and I described the events in my talk. I don’t know if I should go back to this.
YOUNG: Well, if you can just give some highlights of what it was like to work in the quarry…
ILIES: The quarry was – it was in a mountain because Mauthausen – it wasn’t a mountain, it was a hill, but quite a tall hill. And you had to descent into the quarry to work and the steps – there were some 140 steps going down and it was at an angle of almost 45 degrees. Since we were underfed and starved and cold, and many of us ill, it was a terrible ordeal just to go down. Not to speak of the fact how difficult it was to get out of there because you had to climb all those stairs all the way back carrying stones. And many people died in the quarry. We were cutting stone under the supervision of the SS and since it was winter, when dark fell, we were herded back to the camp, and on the way back many people died of exhaustion. The life of a quarry worker was no more than two to three months. I managed to escape, to come out of it alive, because Linz, the nearest town to Mauthausen, was bombed by the Allies and I was sent with a formation of other inmates to clean the rubble from the Linz railroad station. And, when this was done after, I think it was a couple of weeks, we came back to the camp and by that time there was a great deal of disorder. It wasn’t – it wasn’t a couple of weeks. This was in January already, so we stayed in Linz for more than three weeks, perhaps even a month, being marched back and forth between the camps, but in any case it wasn’t such a murderous work as being in the stone quarry. And, at the beginning of January, in the middle of January, because the Russians were very near, they decided to evacuate the camp to another camp, which is in upper Austria, and it is in Gunskirchen. Gunskirchen was part of the Mauthausen concentration camp system. All the camps in Austria were part of the Mauthausen concentration system. There were a few of them: Ebensee, Gusen I, Gusen II, Bruck-an-der-Leitha, and Gunskirchen.
YOUNG: Were you aware of this system?
ILIES: No, no, I…
YOUNG: After the war?
ILIES: After the war I read about it. At that time I knew that these camps existed but administrative details were unknown to me.
YOUNG: How did you get information about the war, you know, when you were in Linz during these work details?
ILIES: About the war? From discarded newspapers. At one time I worked with the Todt organization formation. Todt – T O D T. This was sort of an engineer’s formation of the German army. And they were repairing a bridge not far from Mauthausen. We were sent to do the heavy work for them. And there I came to know one of the Todt organization. Todt is the name of a German engineer who was the chief of this formation, and even after his death, his name remained as part of the name of the engineer corps of the German army. In any case, I met a soldier because there were also soldiers – the uniform was different, but they were soldiers. And I met one of them and he spoke English and when I told him that I speak English, he started being very nice to me and he told me about what is the situation. So, there was always something that give you a hint. Once, when we were still in Bruck-an-der-Leitha, it was a heavy winter day – or it was perhaps in Mauthausen – you see these things are not quite clear anymore. That’s why in my talk, I picked “24 Hours in a Day in Mauthausen” because I knew the facts are not quite – I mean the dates are not quite clear in my mind anymore – 40 years, after all.
In any case, it was a heavy winter day with huge snow on the highways, and that particular highway led to Weinerneistadt. Weinerneistadt, which is a town near Vienna, the Germans had plants working for the military, and they were bombed constantly by the Allies. And working on the highway, cleaning it from snow, at one point we worked together with a group of French P.O.W.s who were working at various other German plants and farms. And they told us also about the station in the war. So there was – even if it wasn’t something precise, but it – we had a general idea how the things are. We knew that we are surrounded to a smaller or bigger degree by Russians on one side and Anglo-Americans on the other side. It was just a matter to see if we are going to live, to see our liberation. This was in January, perhaps, and we were liberated in May. And four months – it’s a lifetime when you are in a concentration camp. And indeed, most of the people died in that period of time, not by being gassed, just by exposure and starvation and the typhus.
YOUNG: Were you able to get extra rations when you were at Linz, or how did you…?
ILIES: Oh no, we, we – the only time when we got extra rations – rations, rations?
YOUNG: Rations.
ILIES: …was when we were still in Bruck-an-der-Leitha and the railway station was bombed in Bruck-an-der-Leitha this time, and worked there for a couple of weeks to clear the rubble, just like in Linz. And by a fluke there was a train coming from Eastern Europe into Germany, transporting elements, transporting food, and this train was bombed so that most of the contents were on the ground. And, the SS told us that we can eat whatever we can lay our hands on, and I mean, it was impossible to not allow us to do it because we were starved and the food was there on the ground, butter and preserves and lard and what-have-you. And by the time we finished the work there – we had a kind of passive agreement that we are not going to steal cigarettes, we are not going to take away cigarettes and drinks – I mean, alcohol, because there were also cases of vodka and Romanian trocki and all kinds of alcoholic drinks. We are not allowed to touch them. We are not allowed to take the cigarettes but we can take the food. So I was part of that group that was allowed to take some food with us. And when we were transported from Bruck-an-der-Leitha via Deutschaltenburg to Mauthausen on the barges, where we didn’t receive any food for six days, I managed with other inmates who were on the detail working in the Bruck-an-der-Leitha railway station to survive by eating what we had taken with us from that bombardment. But this was – it wasn’t an extra ration, it was just the fact that the Allies bombed the railway station, and a train with food happened to be in the station at the time of the bombing. I mean, you would put your shovel in the earth to uncover the rails and on the shovel you would have dirt, stones, and preserves. It was impossible not to eat it. It wasn’t exactly hygienic, but who cared?
YOUNG: What kind of relationship did you have with other inmates who didn’t have food? Did – were people stealing or giving to each other?
ILIES: I don’t remember cases of stealing. I had a very good friend who didn’t work in that railway detail in which I worked, so I shared everything I had. We had an understanding that all – we were good friends and we were together in the Hungarian labor camps and then in Mauthausen and in Gunskirchen, where he died. But we had an understanding that we are always going to share our food, whatever we get extra. So, I shared with him everything I had but not with others – no.
YOUNG: Was there a kind of animosity between certain groups of people or…?
ILIES: No, there was no animosity. It was – it was part of the pattern of our life. That sometimes you got lucky and you were sent somewhere where you did wind up with some food. But this happened to others also, and there was some stealing going on every once in a while – very rarely – because if somebody stole food from somebody else, he would be beaten to death by those he – if he was caught in the act. It was – you couldn’t defend yourself from your food being taken away from you if the one who wanted to take away the food, any sort of food you might have, was a kapo. A kapo was an inmate overseer who had rights of life and death over the other inmates and he could do whatever he wanted with you. But in our particular case, the kapo didn’t take away what we had.
YOUNG: During this time, did you ever give up hope that you’d survive or what were you feeling like during this time?
ILIES: I said it even then, and I remember what I said, “That I hope that I will survive but I don’t think I will survive.” I mean, of course I was young; I was 21. I was relatively healthy and when you are so young you kind of – you cannot conceive that you will also die. I mean, death happens only to the others, not to you. So, in spite of the fact that I was surrounded by corpses and crematorium in Mauthausen and gas chamber in Mauthausen, I was hoping that I would survive. I didn’t think I would survive because it was touch and go. If the war lasted one month more than it did, I would have been dead because I had typhus. Typhus in Germany is called fleck typhus, and I am always inclined to use the German word for it. And so, if instead of being liberated on the fourth of May, 1945, I would have been liberated four weeks later – I would have been in the gas chamber because all those who had typhus, unless they could, they could somehow get rid of it which was almost impossible but some did – you ended up being shot or being gassed. Or you would die from the typhus without being shot and without being gassed. My very good friend – I mentioned him. He died of typhus and diarrhea. Nobody shot him, nobody gassed him. He just –
ILIES: So my answer is, “Yes, I did hope that I would survive,” but honestly, thinking of it, I didn’t think I would survive. It came as a – when on the fourth of May the Americans liberated the camp, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. It was – it was a shock, it was just something that never happens twice in a lifetime. It was – I was in a state of utter happiness but utter shock at the same time.
YOUNG: Can you describe the, you know – well, from January to May, how was life like in Mauthausen?
ILIES: From January – in Mauthausen life was, was, was terrible. This doesn’t mean too much. Food was getting scarcer and scarcer. Food in a concentration camp was always a problem, a huge problem, but in January – Mauthausen is perhaps one day train distance from Vienna and Vienna was already in the hands of the Russian, so that the hinterland of Mauthausen was in Allied hands. The camp of Dachau, which is in Bavaria, which was one of the big camps and which was fairly near to Mauthausen, was almost already in the hands of the Americans. So we had less and less food and we survived practically on a slice of bread and some sort of soup which was distributed three times a day, and then twice a day, and then once a day. In late January we were marched from Mauthausen and they never told you where they were marching. The rumors were always around, so the rumor had it that we would march to Dachau because the Russians were approaching, and we were going to march to Dachau. But, after half a day of march, we were turned around and got back into Mauthausen because Dachau was already occupied by the Americans. After a week or so we were marched to Gunskirchen. This was – it had to be in February, late February, something like that.
YOUNG: How many of you were being marched? Was it hundreds or thousands?
ILIES: Hundreds, hundreds, perhaps even thousands – I have no way of – I didn’t know then, I don’t know now, but as long as you could see on the highway or in the forest, you could see people marching. And this was really what later on was called a death march. It has become kind of a concentration camp story cliché to speak of death marches, but this one was really a death march. No food was distributed and we marched for five or six days between Mauthausen and Gunskirchen. People were eating grass – anything we could lay our hands on, the remnants of food from trash cans. In those five or six days we were given bread only once.
YOUNG: So the fact that you were young and relatively healthy made the difference in your survival.
ILIES: Absolutely made the difference because hundreds of people died in that march. Everybody who couldn’t walk anymore was shot. I mean that there was no – it wasn’t even done in a, in a hidden way. I mean, they didn’t take the people off some place from the column marching, they just shot him in the back of the head and left him on the highway. Corpses, hundreds of corpses were on the highway, and that made me very furious when, after the war, when the war ended, people from that region of Austria said that they didn’t know what happened in the concentration camps. I mean there were corpses in the towns, on the highways, they saw people – hundreds, thousands of people marching. They didn’t know what happened. This is what they all said, “Oh, mine Grott mir haben nicht gewust davon.” It was terrible. It was another, it was another way of German torturing us. I mean, here are all these innocent Germans. I’m not saying that they were all of them SS, and they personally killed Jews, but to lie that they didn’t see it was ridiculous. I mean, the camp of Gunskirchen was four kilometers away from the town of Wels and – and we all of us marched through the town of Wels. Everybody who was in Gunskirchen had to go through Wels and all the columns of inmates left behind corpses. And this marching lasted for many, many weeks because people from Gusen I, from Gusen II, from Ebensee, from Mauthausen, were marching into Gunskirchen, thousands of people and they had never seen us, they didn’t know what happened in those camps.
I mean, at that time I thought that all the Germans have to be killed, anybody who can do what they did to us and then lie in such a stupid, idiotic way. There is no – you cannot change these people, they have to be killed. I didn’t kill them but this was my – I didn’t kill anybody, but with all my feeling, I wanted to strangle all of those people who were saying, “Grott mir haben nicht gewust davon.” This was terrible, because you realize that the SS – yes, they were a minority, a minority of the German people. There were a few million of them but they still were a minority. And of those few million, only a few, tens of thousands, worked as guard in concentration camps. But why did the German civilian population lie? I mean, we were not about to kill them. Why did they have to say, “Mir haven nicht gewust davon?” It was, it was idiotic; it was shameless, obscene.
YOUNG: So you marched to Gunskirchen and then you…
ILIES: In Gunskirchen we didn’t work anymore. We stayed there two months perhaps, two to three months…approximately two months. In May we were liberated, so…
YOUNG: So were you liberated from Gunskirchen or from Dachau?
ILIES: From Gunskirchen. Gunskirchen is not far from Salzburg. It’s on the way between Linz and Salzburg. It’s already upper Austria. No, I was liberated from Gunskirchen.

Tape 2 - Side 2

YOUNG: Do you remember – you said you were very happy when the Americans liberated you. Can you remember the details of the liberation?
ILIES: Yes, I do remember that. In the morning of the fourth of May, the SS disappeared and there was no appel, there was no roll call, and there was no food distribution. In the morning we used to receive sort of a sugar beet soup and after a few hours we got very – we knew that the Allies were not far, but we didn’t know how far they are or how near. So we didn’t dare do anything. We didn’t leave our barracks or we were just walking around the barracks very careful because something unusual was happening. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
But after a few hours, in spite of the fact that we didn’t know that the SS would never come back, hundreds of thousands of people attacked the food warehouses and it was an orgy of fighting and eating and carting food away from those warehouses. The door to the warehouse was relatively narrow, perhaps from there to here, from that door to here. So hundreds of people trying to enter that door – it was impossible. You had to fight your way in. You had – it was – it was a life and death matter to enter. Many people were trampled and died trying to enter – suffocated by the others.
I entered that warehouse by climbing a tree and throwing myself through the window, which I broke. The tree was very near the window – one of the windows of the warehouse. And I threw myself from the tree into the warehouse, breaking the glass, cutting myself on the glass, but who cared. And I ate what I could lay my hands on in the warehouse and then I had my – what do you call it – knapsack, right?
YOUNG: Uh-huh.
ILIES: And I put everything I could, conserved meat and margarine and bread into my knapsack.
YOUNG: This warehouse was the food for the SS?
ILIES: It was the food for the SS and for the inmates but of course we received practically nothing from it because the SS were receiving the huge part of the SS – the SS were receiving the major part of the food. We are receiving just – for instance – there was horse flesh in the warehouse. This is what we would receive in the soup – very tiny parcels, very tiny bits of food flesh. It was uneatable even for us who were starved. But when I tried to get out – first of all, I couldn’t get out because everybody walked in. Finally, after staying there a few hours, not being able to eat anymore because I felt that if I took one more morsel of food in my mouth I am going to throw up and my stomach was unaccustomed to having food. I was – I weighed – I knew it after that because shortly after that I entered the hospital – I weighed 37 kilos, which is 70 pounds.
YOUNG: 70 pounds.
ILIES: And finally I managed to get out when things calmed down in the evening hours of that same day, and inmates who were unable to get in were waiting outside and attacking those who were coming out of the warehouse and taking away the food that you had. So I wound up with no food at all with me and – but I was already – I already appeased my hunger, so I was not too unhappy. I didn’t fight too much to defend my food because, besides, there were three people climbing all over me and I was in no position to resist.
And the same evening we left the camp without any orders from nowhere, but we knew that the camp is full with victims, with death cases of typhus and dysentery and lice was crawling all over the place and all over our bodies. We are dirty. We were, I mean, we were the dregs of humanity, the scum of humanity. This is the way we looked, and this is the way we kind of visualized ourself. In any case, the same evening we left the camp and when we reached the highway a car approached us with lights on and I didn’t know at that time that it’s a jeep, but later on I learned that this is a jeep. It was a jeep with GI’s and I asked them if they are British, and they answer, “No, we are Americans…so, who are you?” We told them that there is a camp nearby. This was the first, the advanced formations of the liberating American army. And we asked which direction is Wels because we knew that Wels is the nearest town. So, they showed us. They couldn’t help us with anything but they threw us a few cigarettes. And we started marching towards the nearest town, which was Wels.
When we arrived after a few hours, around midnight, we entered the first German house. There was nobody in the house and we looked all over the place for food, of course, again. I couldn’t eat anymore. I was already nauseated by the thought of food. It was – I ate too much for what I could digest and I was nauseous. People were – we found eggs for instance. People were eating scrambled eggs or sunny side up or whatever. I couldn’t – I had to leave the room where there was the smell of food.
I was already sick. I didn’t realize it. I was already sick. I had terrible headaches and after a few days I had a high fever and I was taken to a hospital where I stayed for – this was in May, and I stayed in the hospital until the early part of July. I lost even more weight and then I went down to 34 or 33 kilos – kilograms. It was an American hospital, staffed with German nurses, and they took very good care of us, I must say. I mean, the German nurses, they were very devoted. It’s just part of the German psyche – you have to tell them what to do and they will carry it out to the letter. If it’s to exterminate and gas the Jews, they are going to gas them in a very thorough way. If they are told that you have to save these people because you have lost the war and you have to save the sick people in the hospital, then they would do their damnest to save them, and they did.
YOUNG: Where was the hospital?
ILIES: The hospital was in Wels.
YOUNG: In Wels. So you stayed in town for…
ILIES: I stayed in the town of Wels until I – until September when I left Austria.
YOUNG: How did you leave Austria? Did you –
ILIES: Oh, I knew – I hoped that my family is still alive in Romania. As far as I knew there was no deportations from Bucharest. So I hoped that they are going to be there. Or, in any case, I had to go to see for myself what happened to them. But they were no – you see, in each country in Europe sent commissions, military commissions for the repatriation of the inmates and displaced persons from Germany and Austria. But no Romanian commission was coming.
And I waited and I was – I worked at that time for the U.S. military government as an interpreter. I participated in the investigation of war criminals who were caught in that area, mostly Hungarian war criminals since I speak Hungarian too, and so I made the interpretation and I translated their testimony – their depositions, whatever they were answering to the American investigator. I worked very hard but I was very happy to do it. But I was, I was antsy to go home. I was – my dream was to finally continue my studies. I wanted to finish law school and I realized, “Here I am.” It’s 1945, I am 23 years old. I had lost five years of my life. I want to go back and continue and finish my studies. So I was very nervous. I wanted to go home and I couldn’t because there were no Romanian commissions coming.
So finally, working for the Americans, I got – I knew that the Czech commission was coming and I managed to get hold of Czech repatriation papers. I didn’t change my hame, I just say that I’m born in Czechoslovakia, in Kosice, which was before it was Hungary, before World War I. So there was something of a likelihood that I might – I speak Hungarian. I speak Hungarian because it was a part of Czechoslovakia that was previously Hungarian.
And when entered – we left Austria in wagons. I mean – not in a regular people transporting cars. They were using, you know, how do you call the cars, the train cars in which you load horses or food or whatever?
YOUNG: Yeah, I know, I know what you’re saying – they weren’t passenger cars but they were…
ILIES: They were not passenger cars. It was – it was – they have a name. I don’t know what name they have. But they were not – it was not like when we were deported and there were 100 people in a car. We had enough space and we were happy knowing that we are going home. I didn’t know how I am going to get home because I was with false papers saying that I’m a Czech. But, when we arrived in Czechoslovakia, the border town between Austria and Czechoslovakia is Budejovice, Budweis in German. We were received by a committee of the Czech army, police, and some civilians. We all had to say from where we are and so forth and so on, and I knew I am having trouble because I wasn’t speaking in Czech. I didn’t understand Czech; I couldn’t speak it. So when my turn came to present myself and say from where I am and where I am going, they knew from the paper that I am from Kosice. I say – I told them the truth. I am not Czech; I never was Czech. I was born in Budapest. I want to reach Romania. They asked me from which camp I was coming and I told them, and the captain who was interrogating me happened to have been in Mauthausen before the end of the war and he was already repatriated. He was a member of the Czech army and he was already working in the Czech army, so he was very impressed. I had no problems with them. They gave me a paper. I still have it some place, in which they are saying that Mr. such-and-such was detained in the concentration camps of Mauthausen and Gunskirchen, and all the Czech authorities are asked to give him all the help.
And I arrived to Budapest. I stayed in Budapest for 10 days, I guess. I looked up whatever who was left from my friends and from my two aunts. I found my two aunts alive and their mother, an old lady. My uncle and my cousin were killed in Auschwitz, but these two aunts were alive. One of them is still alive. She is 95 years old. I’ve seen her two years ago. And I just – I also had difficulties going into Romania because being born in Budapest, the Romanian embassy in Hungary said that “for all practical purposes you are a Hungarian.” I told them that I speak fluent Romanian, but I can’t give you all the details of where I studied in Romania and I said, “Yes, indeed, I am a Hungarian citizen, but I lived in Romania. I didn’t receive citizenship because I was a Jew. My family lives there.” And he said, “You know what, we can’t give you – legally we can’t give you a Romanian repatriation paper. But you take any train entering Romania from Budapest and at the border you tell the soldier that you are a former inmate of a concentration camp and nobody will tell you to go back.” (LAUGHTER) So this is the way I entered Romania.
YOUNG: So you went back.
ILIES: I went back. This was in September of 1945.
YOUNG: And how did it feel like for you, you know, seeing your mother again and…
ILIES: Well it was – it was very emotional. They, they knew that I’m dead – I don’t know how. The rumor was that I am dead, that I died in Budapest. Somebody has seen me being shot by the Hungarian Fascists because there was a pogrom in Budapest too. And at first they didn’t want to believe that I am alive. Of course, immediately within the hour, all the family gathered at my mother’s place and I couldn’t believe my own eyes that they are all alive and my mother had a nice home, as if nothing would have happened. It was – it was terrible to think what I had gone through and what other people have gone through, how many have died. I didn’t know at that time that it was six million. The figure was not known. Yes, the newspaper was filled with news about the concentration camps, but the magnitude of the crime was not yet known. Everybody knew that thousands were, but how many thousands, nobody knew. But we knew what happened and we knew that Jews from Transylvania didn’t come back. But you could still hope. It was, after all, only four months after the war. You could still hope that they would come back eventually. They are in a hospital, they – whatever.
YOUNG: Uh-huh.
ILIES: But of course in the coming months it turned out that nobody came and then we already knew that millions are gone.
YOUNG: How did you – what did you do in Romania? Did you decide then to rebuild your life there, or how did you come to America?
ILIES: I don’t know. At that time I didn’t think of coming to America. I just – I came back in September, I don’t know which part of September – I think it was maybe mid-September. I just slept and ate and washed myself for two weeks, (LAUGHTER) and then I went to the university and I enrolled myself. And I started my studies and in 1948, the Jews started leaving Romania, immigrating from Romania to Israel, but I was – I was – they were not granting visas for young people. At that time I was young; I was 24. No exit visas for young people, so I couldn’t leave and I saw all my family going and found myself being left behind. It was a funny thing. I came back to see them and here everybody was leaving Romania and I was left behind. It wasn’t – it wasn’t too traumatic because I already knew my future wife and I wanted to marry her, so I had somebody. I wasn’t left alone.
YOUNG: Did your mother leave for Israel?
ILIES: Yes, she left for Israel and she lived in Israel for the rest of her life, from 1948 until 1981, I think. She was 81 years old when she passed away. I left Romania, and I had a nice career in Romania. I was in the foreign trade. I was an export manager. I had a very good marriage and a lovely child. And I received many promotions and I was sent overseas for various trade delegations, so I was part of a minority of Romanian citizens who didn’t have it too bad. I wasn’t a member of the party, which was even more unusual, but there was – in 1956, after the Geneva talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower, there was a relaxation of the terror. Stalin died in 1953, and they were willing to promote people who were not party members but who could contribute with their knowledge and their skills. And they were very intent on trying to raise the standards of living, so they left everybody who was not a party member to be engineers and in managing positions.
This lasted only for a few years and then, especially all the Jews, were purged from every so-called sensitive jobs. I wasn’t purged because of this. I was purged because in 1958, I applied for an exit visa. And then they kicked me out from the foreign trade and I left Romania in 1965. So I waited seven years to, to – I was kept unemployed for almost a year and managed to have a minor job in a factory because Jews were not hired if they applied for an exit visa, just as it happens today in the Soviet Union.
YOUNG: So when you applied for an exit visa, it was to come to the States?
ILIES: Officially my request was for Israel because Jews were supposed to go only to Israel. But when I arrived in Rome – I mean, my wife was very sick. She had cancer. And my big hope was that perhaps in the United States, with the state of the medical arts, she can be saved, which was not the case, but I was hoping and so I switched. You could declare where you want to go in Rome. And I declared that I wanted to go to the United States, and I had two aunts already living in the United States, but it was unimportant. As long as you were coming from an Eastern European country, and you were a Jew, after a period of six or seven months of investigation – if you are a Communist or if you are a war criminal or whatever – they gave you the entry to the United States under the Walter Act.
YOUNG: So you came directly from Rome to St. Louis?
ILIES: To St. Louis.
YOUNG: Because of your aunts here?
YOUNG: With your child too?
ILIES: My child and my wife.
YOUNG: And then you made a new life for yourself in St. Louis?
ILIES: Yes, in St. Louis. Unfortunately, I lost my wife after a year, so I brought up my daughter all by myself, but she is well and I am a grandfather.
YOUNG: You certainly had a struggle all your life.
ILIES: Yes, I would say so.
YOUNG: How do you feel now, being in America and having gone through all the sufferings? Do you have any regrets or anything that you, you know, if things could have been different, what you would have done with your life?
ILIES: Yeah. I’m sorry that I didn’t come to America when I left the camp. I would have had an opportunity to come to the United States. I was working for the military government in upper Austria, and they asked me if I want to apply to come to the United States. It would have been a great difference if I came here when I was 24 and not when I was 44. I could have made myself a much better life. Of course, I wouldn’t have had this daughter; I wouldn’t have married my first wife. Everything would have been different, but that would have been the thing to do, but I did the sentimental thing, which is not always the best thing to do.
YOUNG: Well, there was a strong need on your part to see your family.
ILIES: Yes, but I really don’t have extenuating circumstances for the stupidity I made because when I came back to Romania, I knew – I mean, the Russians were there, the fact that the Communists were going to take over sooner or later was obvious. People were already leaving Romania and as a former D.P., I could have returned to Germany into a displaced person camp. I wasn’t even a Romanian citizen. If I went to the police and I told them I’m not a Romanian citizen, they would give me any sort of papers I want to get out from here. They would have been happy. But I didn’t do it because I had my family there. I started my studies and I wanted to finish. And it was a very high price to pay. And I paid it with practically the rest of my life.
YOUNG: Well, you’re now retired from…
ILIES: I’m retired, yes. I retired a year ago. I retired earlier because I was very sick, a result of – according to the doctors – a result of the life I have led, a result of the concentration camp sufferings, a result of typhus which I had and my headaches started with the typhus and they never left me. Now it’s the first time that I have – after I retired. For one year I was very sick with terrible headaches. But now, for the past five months it’s the first time in 40 years that I am free of headaches.
YOUNG: Well, thank you.
ILIES: Thank you.

Listen to Leslie's Story