As a child, Shirley Berger Gottesman, lived in ZĂˇluĹľ in the TransCarpathian region, with parents and four siblings as well as her extended family, grandmother, aunts, and uncles. In April 1944, after Passover, the family was deported to a ghetto in nearby MunkĂˇcs and a short time later to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Shirley, then sixteen, was assigned to Kanada II, given a uniform (the red polka-dotted dress), and told to sort the possessions brought from the cattle cars. Her barrack was only ten feet away from Crematorium IV. In her memoir, Shirley describes the horror of what she saw, stating: â€śIt was so unbelievable. I canâ€™t even conceive of what they did. Impossible! We were ready for work. We were even ready not to have enough food. We were not ready to be gassed.â€ť
Shirley Gottesmanâ€™s memoir of Kanada II and slave labor camps in Germany will both horrify and inspirit readers. Despite the hell she endured in Europe and the nightmares she continues to endure, Shirley found a haven in the U.S. on a farm in Vineland with her husband Sam. Readers will recognize Shirleyâ€™s bravery and resilience as she lives each day, refusing to allow her memories of the Holocaust to overwhelm her life.
Chapter 1 â€˘ The Custom of the Country 1
Chapter 2 â€˘ What Rough Beast? 6
Chapter 3 â€˘ MunkĂˇcs 9
Chapter 4 â€˘ Our Last Pesach 11
Chapter 5 â€˘ The Brick Factory 14
Chapter 6 â€˘ Inside the Cattle Car 16
Chapter 7 â€˘ Processed 17
Chapter 8 â€˘ Kanada II 20
Chapter 9 â€˘ A Red Polka-Dotted Dress 21
Chapter 10 â€˘ The Sorting Barracks 26
Chapter 11 â€˘ Daily Life in Hell 29
Chapter 12 â€˘ The Big Guns 33
Chapter 13 â€˘ The Revolt at the Crematoria 34
Chapter 14 â€˘ A Glimpse of a Deeper Hell 36
Chapter 15 â€˘ Work and the Woods 39
Chapter 16 â€˘ Bittersweet 43
Chapter 17 â€˘ To the New World 46
Chapter 18 â€˘ Our Haven 50
Works Cited 56
Table of Contents
I was born between the wars, on May 6, 1927, in ZĂˇluĹľ,1 nine miles southeast of MunkĂˇcs (Mukacheve)2 and fourteen miles northeast of Berehove (BeregszĂˇsz). ZĂˇluĹľ is in the Transcarpathian region, belonging to Hungary until 1920, to Czechoslovakia between 1920-1938, and again to Hungary from 1938-1945 (â€śJewish Community of MunkĂˇcsâ€ť).
Our town, although small, was not a shtetl (a village); it was bigger than some other towns. On the other hand, it was not as big as MunkĂˇcs. We had a post office, a city hall, and a bus that ran through our town to MunkĂˇcs. Fewer than a hundred families, perhaps less, lived there. Of these, 20 to 25% were Jewish.
Our family lived together with my grandparents, Malka and Zalman Berger; my aunts, Helen Berger, born in 1911, and Pepe Berger, born in 1914, and my young uncle, Leib Berger, born in 1923. After Aunt Helen married Yankel Ackerman, she lived a short distance away.
My father, Laizer Berger, was young when I was born; in 1944, he was about forty years old, so he was born around 1903 or 1904. He was hard working and a good husband and father. He owned land that he farmed, so he went out during the day and did what had to be done. He worked in the fields and around the house, so I saw him daily. Sometimes during harvest time he had to hire help with the plowing. Our farm produced potatoes, beans, and vegetables; we had fruit trees and wheat for our own useâ€”not for selling. We had some livestock: cows, geese, and chickens. Father had a horse occasionally, but just for working the fields.
My mother, Blima Weinberg Gottesman, was born in April 1903. Her parents were Shandal Weinberg and Herman Gottesman. My maternal grandmother died young, and I was named after her. My maternal grandfather, Herman Gottesman, married a second time to a woman named Leila; she died in the 1940s before the deportations.
My mother was a remarkable woman. She saw to our needs, but she also tried to give us opportunities to travel, so we could get away from home a little; she wanted us to see other places. I think this was unusual for those times. We traveled to the commercial capital, MunkĂˇcs, for shopping and to visit relatives and for weddings. Sometimes my mother took me if she needed to buy a coat or shoes for me or the other children. Mother liked us to have nice clothes, but only what she could afford. Mother became a seamstress on her own. My aunt helped her with her business. They did not do fancy sewing but sewed plain clothes for folks who lived in our area, mainly farming people. She made a good income.
My paternal grandmother, Malka Greenstein Berger, did the cooking. All the daughters-in-law from the two families pitched in, taking over the care of the household, but my mother managed the household.
We were five children. I was the eldest, born in 1927. Then came Moishe Lieb (Martin), Fiaga, Ester, and the youngest Rifka, born in 1943. My name was Sheindi, but they called me Sari. We were happy, enjoying a good life. Most people in town had about the same lifestyle. The children were all treated the same way. The children had to help or there would be consequences.
We were raised religiously. All the Jewish people we knew, even the Jews in other towns, kept Shabbas very strictly.3 Because we were not allowed to work on Shabbas, we had a non-Jewish woman who came and built the fire, turned on the water, and also put food in the oven to keep it warm. We kept kosher strictly.4 We prayed every morning and afternoon at home. However, nobody went to the shul (synagogue) every morning, only on Shabbas. It was not our custom to go daily. Girls didnâ€™t attend shul except on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, one of the High Holidays); they stayed home with the younger children. Father had a small beard; grandfather, a large beard; this was the tradition. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, has a commandment not to shave the corners of the headâ€”Leviticus 19:27. Within the Chassidic community, the custom is not to shave the beard.5 My grandmotherâ€™s and motherâ€™s hair were shaven and both wore kerchiefs; again this was the custom, a sign of modesty, or Tzniut.6 We never thought about doing anything differently; we had done things this way for generations. On the Sabbath, the children knew they were not supposed to touch anything or do anything. Mother used to read portions of the parsha for the week.7 She made us pray. She was extremely religious, even though she did not go to daven (pray) every day. She was very sincere about religion. She was pious; she would not hurt anyone. Mother thought religious studies were very important. Usually girls did not study Hebrew; however, mother sent us to the same rabbi who taught the boys. She paid him to teach the girls to read and write Hebrew. I remember the rabbi was an old man with a big beard.
Our house was considered large for the times. It was roofed with red tiles. We had two large rooms, a kitchen, and a special room used for Sukkhah, a temporary hut built to be used during the week-long Jewish celebration of Sukkot (Sukkot commemorates the time the Jews lived in the desert after fleeing slavery in Egypt). This room was closed up during the year. We had five beds; no one had a bed for him or herself. We had no electricity, no running water inside. Everyone went to the well and brought back water. We had an outhouse; we didnâ€™t know there was anything better. The wood stove was for cooking, and kerosene lamps gave light. Even in the summer we had to make a wood fire. This life was very hard for women. Women had to bake their own bread and make their own noodles. We could not just run to a store to buy those products. We had no refrigeration, but we had to eat meat on the Sabbath. Other days we ate dairy and vegetables.
Before March 1939, our town had a Czech school where many Jewish children went; in fact, the students were mostly Jewish. School was compulsory, but I liked school; I wanted to attend. We walked twenty minutes to school; we had no buses. The Czech school was not in session on Saturdays. During prayer, we had to stand up, but we did not have to pray. Nonetheless, from hearing the Christian prayers, I knew them by heart. I also knew all the Christmas songs by heart. The Ukrainian school was attended mainly by Ukrainians. They had daily prayers and had school on Saturday. That went on for generations. Small towns lived that way.
Our school had two teachers; however, there was only one classroom. Some grades were together in the same classroom; for example, the first to the third were in one level; fourth and up in another. The school had split sessions: morning and afternoon. I went to school, finishing the eighth grade when I was fourteen in 1941. My favorite subject was history.
On our street we had no Jewish families; there were non- Jewish children. Children played with children; the children didnâ€™t discriminate. We played outside on the streets. We got up and went out and came home when we were hungry. Our parents never worried about where we were. They knew we would be safe. We didnâ€™t have toys. No dolls. We had to make our toys. We had scraps of cloth, and from these scraps, we made hats and dressed up.
In the summer, we gathered little mounds of dirt off the road, which was unpaved. We said, â€śThe birds are coming.â€ť Then we threw dust up into the air. We climbed trees. When the fruit was ripe, we climbed over the fences and picked some fruit. We played. We talked.
Many Jewish families lived in our area. Almost everybody had a piece of land. Most families had to have another source of income because many of the plots were not large. Many owned mills, bars, and inns. The mills ground wheat into flour and made oil from the bright yellow flower seeds of the sunflowers. I used to watch the sunflowers as they turned their heads following the sun.
One family, the Gelbs, was very rich; they had acres of land, a big home, and a mill. They had lots of sons and daughters. Storekeepers did all right. Father had the farm, so we were fineâ€” middle class. But if a family only had a little land, this was not enough for them to prosper. I remember a poor shoemaker, Mr. Marbeck. His children were so poor that they went away young to other cities and learned trades. One is now in Israel; Boro and Solomon, in Australia.
There were a lot of poor people. You wouldnâ€™t find anything in their houses. They didnâ€™t complainâ€”neither Jews nor non-Jews. They scraped by from one meal to the next. People didnâ€™t need handouts, however. As a child, that is how I saw it.
I donâ€™t recall much antisemitism. However, now and then in school, a student would yell â€śdirty Jew.â€ť The neighbors liked us, I think. They needed us; we needed them. We had a mutual understanding. We provided for each otherâ€™s needs, for example by sewing or selling chicken and geese. Even children had this understanding. Jewish children were closer to their Jewish friends, but we had to walk a long way to be with our Jewish friends. Therefore, we played with those who lived around us.
The Catholic priest in our town was Greek Orthodox. He was married to a woman who was zaftig. My mother sewed for them. Every year she gave them a presentâ€”pĂ˘tĂ© de foie gras, goose liver. She would send me to the priestâ€™s home. I remember I was scared of his big dogs. This priest was tolerant. In other places I heard that the priests were harping on the Jews, especially accusing them of deicide. They said, for example, â€śJews deserve a bad fate because they killed Christ.â€ť