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Holocaust Survivor Jan Menchel MAG
Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, in a small town called Yasina.
What was life like when you were little?
Life was very hard. Yasina was a small town in the Carpathean mountains, surrounded by beautiful evergreen trees. The main industry was lumber, cutting trees in the forest. There were middle-class people, a few rich ones; we were one of the poorest families. There was no electricity, and we had to bring water from the river. For a bath, we had to bring water and heat it. We all took a bath in the same water. My mother washed our clothes in the river.
Did you have brothers or sisters?
Yes, two brothers and one sister. I was the youngest. When I was nine, I learned how to make things with beads, like bracelets, necklaces, and pocketbooks. Tourists visited the mountains, so I would make these and my sister would run after the tourists so they would buy them. We did this to help our parents.
What did you do for heat?
We used to have to chop wood for the stove in the winter to heat the house. Most of the time we didn't have enough wood, so the only room with heat was the kitchen. At bedtime, we heated bricks and put them in the beds. The pillows were like ice, and two or three children slept together to keep warm.
What did your father do?
He worked in a lumber mill. The winter was very strong, very cold. He worked 12 hours in the winter in the snow. It took him one and a half hours to get to work. He used to leave at four in the morning and return at ten at night.
Wasn't it dangerous?
In the winter, it was very dangerous to walk at night. There were no lights, and there were wolves. We used to wait for him to come home, always worrying where he was. We always would go to look for him, but it was so dark, you couldn't see anything. We would meet him and he would sometimes bring wood for the stove. It was very, very hard.
What was school like?
I started public school when I was six years old. Teachers were very strict and used discipline. We had to getup at six o'clock in the morning for Hebrew school first, which went until eight o'clock, and then we went to the public school. After public school we went back to Hebrew school. Education was very important in our small town because our parents wanted us to become something.
It sounds like you had a very difficult childhood . . .
With all the hardships, if I look back now, our childhood was great because we were a very close family and being together meant everything. We enjoyed each other. It was hard work, but unfortunately in the fifth grade, I couldn't continue school.
My area had three peoples: Ukrainians, Hungarians and Jews. In 1936, Ukraine wanted to claim independence and they took over Carpathea. They were big anti-Semites and when they were appointed to government positions, they started up against the Jews. They made a list of how many Jews they would kill in a town. The children from Catholic school would wait for the Jewish kids who came out of public school and beat us up every day. We always came home with bloody noses.
The Ukrainians were in power until 1938 and then the Hungarians took over. They were anti-Semites, too, and then followed the Nazis. They threw the Jewish children out of the public schools.
Where did you go to school after the Jewish children were barred from the public schools?
I went to art school which taught sculpture, but then that wasn't allowed either.
I studied there for a year and a half and then decided to go on my own to Budapest to be an apprentice as a tailor. I did that for two years, and then one day I got a call from the police that I should come in to report myself.
Were the Germans there?
No, but the Hungarians followed the German rules. At that time they got all the Jews together who weren't citizens and sent them to Poland, which was occupied by Germany. It was very difficult to get citizenship papers, because at that time your great-great grandparents had to be citizens in order to get papers. We applied and hoped to get them, but by the time we did, it was too late.
What happened when you went to the police station?
I thought that once I reported there, they would let me leave, but they put me in jail. I was there for a few days and the police said they would take me home. My parents found and sent a man to get me out and take me home. The man said they would let me go home if I paid for the train, but I had no money and mistakenly thought the police would get me home without paying. It took several months, and they moved me from one jail to the next en route to my hometown.
How old were you? Weren't you very afraid?
I was 16, and, of course, I was scared. I was afraid that they would send me to Poland, but I made it home to my family.
What did you do at home before the war?
I worked as a tailor from 1942 to 1944. Meanwhile, during those two years, they kept shipping Jews to Poland. Ours was the last town on the border of Poland. All this time, these terrible trains packed with Jewish children and adults passed our house and we heard screaming and crying. The railroad ran through the town and the people of the town would get food together and throw it onto the train.
What else do you remember about the trains?
Mostly what happened was during the holidays. I remember one Rosh Hashanah, the trains came by and mothers were throwing their children out of the train's cattle cars. We took them to the temple and they were crying and screaming. I can still hear the screams.
Did you know what would happen to these people?
We knew because some of the young Jewish men were put in labor camps. They witnessed men, women and children placed on wooden planks above a mass grave. There the Germans and Hungarians shot them with machine guns and they fell into the mass grave, 30,000 at a time. Many were buried alive. We heard about mothers tied to their children and thrown in the river. There were many atrocities.
Were you and your family afraid?
We were afraid, but felt maybe it wouldn't happen to us because we had gotten our papers. But Passover, 1944, I remember my father and I were carrying a basket filled with matzoh. Even during those times, we tried to prepare for the holidays, baking matzoh and preparing for the Seder. My father and I saw the German and Hungarian soldiers marching to the front, which was only 30 kilometers from my town. That night we were saying Passover prayers with the windows covered so light wouldn't show outside, and a German soldier broke in our house pointing his gun at us. He took the kerosene lamp and, without saying a word, he left.
When were you and your family taken from your hometown?
The morning after our lamp was taken, we heard screaming outside. When we went into the street, we saw German and Hungarian soldiers throwing Jews out of their homes and herding them with sticks. The Jews lived in the main part of town, and the peasants, who lived up in the mountains, came down. The soldiers herded us with the rest of the Jews. My mother was wearing a thin dress and wanted to go back to get her coat, but they made her leave without it. They beat her because she asked to get it.
They took us to the Jewish cemetery and shaved off the rabbis' beards. We were there for several days, guarded by the Hungarian townspeople who had been our neighbors and friends. There was a lot of screaming. They were going to kill us all with machine guns.
They said they had orders to kill us, but for some reason they took us in cattle cars on the train to a ghetto.
We couldn't move because we were jammed into the car, standing on top of each other. They could hardly close the doors, we were so packed in. There were thousands and thousands of Jews in the ghetto from the Carpathean area.
What happened after that?
There was no food; we were starving. It was awful. We were in the ghetto for a number of weeks. They told us they were taking us to Poland. We didn't know about the concentration camp at Auschwitz. They pushed us into the cattle cars again and we didn't see daylight for days. They finally let us all out; many had died in transit.
What happened when you arrived at Auschwitz?
When we arrived there, Dr. Mengele [the German doctor who performed genetic experiments on Jews] was there pointing which line we should go to. There were three lines, one for older people, one for women and children, and one for young men and women. We didn't know which line was good or where it would lead. I was lucky because I was 18 and was placed with those who would work. My mother, who was 45, and my father, who was 49, were put with the older people. They were told they were going to the showers, but the "showers" were actually gas chambers where they were put to death. Their bodies were sent to the crematorium where they were burned.
My brother, who had been taken away in 1938, was working in the crematorium when our transport arrived and was there when our parents' bodies came through. Most of the people who worked there were put to death so no witnesses would be left. Somehow my brother Philip survived.
Where did your line take you?
I was in a line that was headed to a labor camp called Yavashna near Poland. Before we were loaded on the transport, we were tattooed with numbers and given blue and white striped uniforms. They did everything to strip us of our identity. Once I arrived at Yavashna, I was put to work mixing cement to build a power plant.
What was "life" like at the concentration camp?
The conditions were inhumane. They would wake us at four o'clock in the morning and we would take a cold shower. We were made to stand in the freezing cold for one and a half hours waiting for our uniforms and black coffee. We worked very hard and were fed a piece of bread and a little soup. If you were really lucky, you would get soup from the bottom of the barrel that was thicker. People became very sick and weak, and we had to carry the sick to work on stretchers.
Eventually the weak were either gassed or shot. My brother Simon, who was a year older, became too weak from starvation and was killed.
How long were you at Yavashna?
I was there for about eight months. At noon on many days, the American planes bombed Germany, and we prayed that they would bomb the camp because life was unbearable.
What happened after eight months?
We heard rumors that the Russians were coming to liberate us. The Nazis didn't want the world to find out what happened. Since we were proof of the atrocities, they took us on a death march through snow and ice without food or water. Hundreds died.
Where did the march take you?
We finally arrived at a camp called Blecheimer. People ran into the kitchen to steal a few potatoes, and they were all shot. One of those killed was a rabbi's young son. I knew they were going to kill all of us. I saw a few people standing near the barbed wire fence and slowly they disappeared under the fence through holes they had dug.
We had nothing to lose by trying to escape, but I remembered the rabbi who had just lost his son. We had worked side by side every day while he recited prayers. He never gave up his faith.
Did the rabbi go with you?
I ran and told him to follow. It was getting dark and we slipped through the hole under the fence. We ran through the woods all night, hearing dogs barking and knowing that we were being chased. Eventually, tired and hungry and still in our striped uniforms, we heard the Russians at their front. We ran toward them with our hands up yelling "Jew. "
Did the Russians take you to safety?
The Russians put us up against a wall to shoot us, but one officer who was Jewish stopped them. He told us not to say we were Jewish, because the Russians hated us.
We were on our way again, cold, frightened and starving. We came to a farm and hid in the hayloft. At another deserted house, I found a black coat, hat and cane with a silver handle for the rabbi. He looked like a real rabbi again.
I wanted to get as far away as possible. We came to a railroad crossing and saw the engine coming. I told the rabbi to jump on the engine and hold on tight. When the train came, I jumped on but the rabbi did not make it.
Although we were both very weak, at 19, I could make the jump. The train traveled about two kilometers, and when I realized he was not there, I jumped off and walked back. I found the old man sitting in the grass, crying like a baby.
What became of the rabbi?
I never left him until we made it to Czechoslovakia. He was reunited with his oldest son in a small town there. We parted and he gave me a blessing. The year was 1945.
In 1967, my family and I went to Switzerland. We were on a train to Belgium when we met a Hassidic Jew. I asked him if he knew the Rachov rabbi. He told us that the rabbi was the chief rabbi in Lugano, Switzerland, and that he was a very holy man. I told the man that I had been in a concentration camp with him.
We arrived in Belgium and he left. We never exchanged names. We changed our plans and went to Lugano. The first night we took a taxi to the Jewish quarters. The driver took us to a synagogue and there, to our surprise, we were greeted by three Hassidic men. They said, "Mr. Menchel, where have you been? The rabbi is waiting for you." The man on the train had told the rabbi about our conversation, and although I never mentioned my name, the rabbi knew it was me.
He was in the hospital and the men from the temple took me to see him. He was overjoyed to see me, and told me that he knew I would come in his time of need. We talked and he blessed me. He recuperated and lived a long, healthy life. He died in his early nineties.
What happened to you after the war?
I was reunited with my brother Philip and my sister Munci after searching for months. Many people returned to their hometowns and reported who had survived and who perished. I came to America in December, 1946, after living in a displaced persons camp. Later, I helped my brother and sister come here. Today, I am 75 years old and have seven grandchildren.