Furst Brothers BRATIA FÜRST
In Sered, again
In Sered, most of our family was together again, but we missed dad. Some time after our arrival, we heard that in Piešťany he managed to escape the Hlinka Guard bullets and arrive at the train station. He joined the partisans, where he met uncle Rudi and Mrs. Quitner’s husband.
In the meantime, Sered became a concentration camp. Deportations were renewed, and with it our struggle for survival. We did our best to adjust to the new conditions.
We both returned to work in the carpentry shop. Mom worked too, but we do not recall what her job was.
In the carpentry shop, I had an unforgettable experience: one day, as I was filing and smoothing a wooden horse we produced, two visitors came to see the shop – Adolf Eichmann and Alois Brunner. Brunner was in charge of deportations from Slovakia and Eichmann was the chief executor of the entire “Final Solution” policy – the annihilation of Jews. They both stood next to me and watched my work. I think, they even asked me something.
In Sered we met many of our acquaintances. One night, a transport of new detainees arrived in the camp. Aunt Elvira was in it, together with her family. That was the last time we saw them. On the following day they were deported to Poland. We were unable to rescue them.
As we were among the camp’s first inhabitants who were taken back to it, our status was, so to speak, of permanent residents. In fact, that was an illusion, because whenever a quota of deportation had to be met, the authorities would undoubtedly take anyone for that purpose. However, for the time being, only those who came to Sered recently were deported, and we were lucky enough to have stayed in Sered.
The policy in the camp, ruled by both Germans and Slovaks, had completely changed. Round-ups of deportees were daily on the agenda. As attempts for escaping the camp were made every so often, severe punishments have been introduced. Even those who tried to sneak from one barrack to another were shot and killed.
Once, ten men were sent to deliver some goods into the camp. One of them escaped and did not return. The nine others were forced to stand nude in front of the camp headquarters. There they were tortured, in order to obtain from them information on the other guy’s whereabouts. They never did. Consequently, at midnight the whole camp was summoned to run around in huge circles. The four of us ran, too. Germans stood on the side of the track with scourges in their hands, whipping the runners. People fell and collapsed. That torment lasted three or four hours. To our great luck, the head of the laundry, an acquaintance of our mom, pulled us out of the row and hid us in the laundry until morning.
Round-ups took place very often, time and again. Whenever they were called for, we were considering our conduct: How should we stand? Who should stand in the front line? Should we stand behind others? Our one and only goal was to avoid deportation. However, selection of deportees was completely arbitrary. For example, the commander would shout: “Every fourth row – go!”
Once we succeeded to slip away from being deported, by taking advantage of some confusion at the Appell and thanks to Shmuel’s resourcefulness. That happened at dusk. We simply decided to cross the muster ground by running from the line of those to be deported to the group of Jews kept in the camp, pretending to have been sent there.
At that time, the siege of Jews in Slovakia has more and more tightened. Their absolute number diminished, but the quota for deportations remained unchanged. The goal was clear: we all were destined to expulsion.
Then, one of our saddest days came. The four of us – grandma, mom, Shmuel and I – stood at an Appell, under the direct command of Alois Brunner, who also carried out the selection. Both Shmuel and I were blond. Mom, a tall and beautiful woman with a turned-up nose, was also blond-haired. Brunner could not even conceive that there were any Jews with such Aryan looks. He came up to us and stated: “You are Mischlinge (of mixed marriage), aren’t you?” Shmuel did not panic and replied in German: “That’s right, and we don’t know why were we being held here for such a long time.” Brunner ordered to transfer mom and us to the group of mixed families. We felt that grandma grasped the course of events, because she implied that mom should join her children, and leave her behind. That was the last time we saw her. Had she been recognized as part of our family, our fate would have been doomed to certain death. She was sixty-three years old when she was deported, at the peak of her wisdom and strength. Our parting from her was a traumatic event. That terrible moment of separation has remained in our minds all along our lifetime. We know that on the rational level that was the only sensible thing we could do at the moment, but emotionally it was a most shocking experience. That tragic event haunted mom until her last day.
We were taken to a building near the dining hall where all the mixed families were accommodated. Some of its inhabitants, who had known us before, began grumbling: “Unlike you, we are all of mixed marriages. Because of your deceitfulness, you are going to bring disaster on all of us!” We only replied: “We are not here at your expense!”
That is how we escaped the particular deportation.
We settled down in the Mischling’s building, pretending to expect our gentile father’s return. We said he would come for us and take us home. We “wondered” why dad has not come yet.
Shmuel: I was summoned to the command. They said to me: “We give you four or five days to get your father into the camp, in order for him to release you. Your eventual return without your father would mean that you lied.” Someone – I don’t know who the person was – arranged for me a meeting with Mr. Winter, a wealthy Jew who still lived in Piešťany, the founder and owner of the local spa. I stayed at his home for a couple of days. For me, as a boy who came from hell on earth, his house seemed almost as a mansion. There I met somebody who was ready to help me. In concluding our consultation, we agreed on the following: upon my return to the camp, I would report that I was unable to find my father, but I did find some documents, which prove his Christianity. I would hand over those documents to the camp authorities.
On the fourth day, Mr. Winter and the other person – whose identity remained unknown to me – gave me, among other relevant papers, a certificate, which stated that Mr. Artur Fürst is Christian.
Upon my return to the camp – I thing it was in the evening hours – I was taken through a corridor filled with dead bodies of people who were killed shortly before.
I entered Brunner’s office and told him that I could not locate dad, as he was not home. Nonetheless, I said, I did find the documents I was holding in my hands. He wordlessly took the papers. Other men in that office said that they hope those papers were authentic; otherwise I would be in great trouble.
When I left the office, only one of the four dead bodies was still on the corridor floor. Passing by a corpse of a man killed just moments ago was a shocking experience. In the past, I have already encountered killings in the camp, but I have never before been so close to someone who was just murdered. I dreadful anxiety overwhelmed me, not only because of the dead body, but also because of the uncertainty about our own future. The fact that the papers I presented were not responded to caused great concern. Were we assigned for the next transport?
In the meantime, with every day passing, new inmates captured all over Slovakia were brought into the camp.
In one of those days, very exciting news came to our ears: our dad has been caught and brought into Sered. Until then, we already ceased to believe that we would ever see him again. We were sure that he was shot during his attempt to escape the Hlinka Guard in Piešťany. The more we were overjoyed and surprised upon hearing that he was alive and, following his capture in a partisan unit, brought to Sered, together with uncle Rudi. When we learned in what block he was held, we actually did not know what to do: once his identity would be revealed, our made-up story would be disclosed, with all its consequences. On the other hand, his stay in that block may have meant that he would be deported on the following day.
By some mysterious way, we conveyed to him our message as follows: firstly, he should change his name; secondly, at nightfall we would get him out of his block and put him into hiding. We believed that mixed families could be exempted from deportation, and the time factor would be in our favor.
Dad got the message. Since he did not hold any document of identification, he had no problem to register under the name Oizer. We decided to hide him in the carpentry shop, in a secluded place where he could never be found. We knew the place inside out. Our first attempt to get him out of the block failed. Only on the following night we successfully smuggled him into the carpentry shop, being helped by another person with whom we shared our secret. Dad hid in an obscured triangle between two staircases.
Uncle Rudi came to the camp together with his girlfriend and her family. We wanted him to join our dad and leave the block, but he refused to abandon his girlfriend. That was the last time we saw him. Uncle Rudi, his girlfriend and her husband were all sent to their death.
Dad stayed at the carpentry shop for several days, but the conditions in the shop were unbearable. It was totally dark, and dad was unable to move. In some way we managed to smuggle to him small portions of food.
Afterwards, dad moved to another hiding place. One night, dad turned up in our room. He and mom decided that we would keep pretending as we were not members of the same family. That meant that we should not be seen together in public.
However, there was a major problem: our dad was a person of renown not only within the camp in its previous formations, but all over Slovakia as well. It did not take long until we saw both our parents being taken to the camp command. At that instant we grasped that the worst of all might happen. After all, we knew and witnessed the extent of suffering the Jews were exposed to.
What did actually happen? Mom and dad were summoned to Brunner. He told them to either deny any relationship between them, or admit right away that they were husband and wife. The latter meant deportation on the following day. They replied: “Yes, were are a married couple.” All four of us were transferred to the barrack of outright Jews.
Why did Brunner not kill mom and dad on the spot? In retrospection, we can only suppose that he was unable to get rid of the thought that he might have been mistaken, because of our looks. Had anyone thought about photographing two brothers who would be prototypes of pure Nordic Aryan race for a Nazi propaganda film, he would have chosen the two of us. We were tall, looking alike, well built, with blue eyes and a short well-designed haircut of our blond hair. Mom’s beauty might also have had a certain effect on Brunner’s hesitation. Of course, he knew too well the destination of the transports. He did not try to save us, but he was probably incapable of killing us right away.
Our parents knew that we would be deported in a few days time. They did not spare efforts to prepare us for an extremely difficult ordeal. Dad said, begged, and ordered: “Come what may, we must overcome all hardships. We must survive! We must!” We engraved these words of our dad deep in our hearts and minds, and they guided us at all times and situations. In our talks about the future, we even set a meeting place for our family, should we be separated from each other. We decided to meet at the home of the gentile Formánek family, at 8 Šuleková Street in Bratislava.
A few days later, an Appell took place. We were among the Jews selected for deportation. We did not make any attempt to slip away from the transport, being aware that any such attempt might have ended with our immediate execution. Our parents heard that a Jew by the name Kohn collaborated with the Germans, and he was the one who extradited us by saying that mom and dad were a married couple. That informer survived the war. He was put on trial and charged of collaboration with the Nazis. Despite Kohn’s evil behavior in Sered, dad did not testify against him.