Nagypapa spoke at Temple Beth Torah in Fremont California for a Yom HaShoah program. His talk was entitled: Have Faith in a Time of Peril.
I'm Neil Heller and in a few moments you will hear my father's stories from the Shoah.
I recently celebrated my 45th birthday. Like each birthday that passes, there was never a question that I would reach this day. In fact, when I turned 20, times were good - I was completing my second year of college and I had an amazing girlfriend who made each day complete - there was never a question that I would be celebrating my 21st birthday.
My father recently celebrated his 87th birthday. If you were to ask him if he thought he would ever turn 87, he might likely answer that he never thought he would make it to 21.
But he did!
Having survived the Holocaust, my father arrived in New York as a 22 year old where his only possessions were the clothes on his back as well as the one thing the Nazis could not take away - the lessons from his parents and teachers. Ten years later, he enrolled as a 32-year-old freshman at MIT, to continue his education. Starting in the early 1960's, my Father spent his career educating children and teachers on how to make computers part of primary, secondary, and college education, including driving the construction of the first university Computer Science curricula.
Tonight, my youngest child, Nina, age 9, will hear her grandfather tell his story. Nina - listen carefully to each word your grandfather says, ask him questions, and make you sure you never forget what happened during the Holocaust. It is by remembering, we will never let it happen again.
Each generation teaches the next. It is a pleasure to sit with you and my children here tonight, as we learn how their grandfather survived because he never gave up hope
Please welcome my father, George Heller.
During World War II, I was slave. I was starved and beaten and had more lice on my body than the stars in the sky. World War II ended in Europe in 1945. I am now 87 years old; I look back, remember, and would like to share with you what faith and hope meant to me in my efforts to survive.
Today we bear witness to the Holocaust, the horrors of genocide so many years ago, and to the horrors of genocide even today in Darfur, Rowanda, Bangladesh, and so many other places.
I am a survivor of the Holocaust. When the American Army entered Gunskirchen, a sub-camp of Mauthausen near Linz, Austria, where I was a prisoner at the end of World War II, they saw the barracks, the dead bodies, and some emaciated ghosts, the survivors of this brutal Concentration Camp. On that day, on that morning of May 5, 1945, 66 years ago, I was inside of one of those barracks. I was one of those emaciated ghosts, worn out by slave labor and starvation under the Waffen SS.
I remember the genocide of World War II as it was carried out by Nazi Germany under Hitler. Today we ask ourselves the question: How could such horrors happen in a highly literate and cultured country? Did not the German people know any better? I got the answer when I attended a session of the California State Assembly a couple of years ago and the invited speaker, talking about the Holocaust explained: The legislature of Germany passed the laws that made genocide the law of the land.
At the trial of Adolf Eichman, who managed the transportation program of victims to the death factories, his defense was: I did what the law of my country required me to do. I obeyed the law.
So history teaches us how important it is for us as citizens to speak up for what we believe is right. There could come a time when speaking up is no longer an option.
Just a few days ago we celebrated Passover. We told the story of the liberation and the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt. Many of us also remembered our own slavery and our own liberation. And at our Passover Seder, each of us was asked to answer our 5th question: What did I do since last Passover to enhance the cause of freedom?
Passover of 1945 has a very special meaning to me. It includes the story of my own, personal Exodus and my own liberation. I remember that Seder night, prior to my liberation, on March 27, 1945. It was a Tuesday evening. I was in a slave labor camp in Burgenland, Austria. Our unit arrived there, 150 strong young men just a few months earlier. By this time all we had left were the 100 plus emaciated, tired slaves. It was Seder night, and we made Passover. We sang Passover songs from memory. And the word Dayenu must have been prefaced by: If I could only have something to eat!!!!
What was it like in this slave labor camp? We were housed in a large barn, sleeping up in the rafters, about two feet of space per person. No heat. We had a leaky roof where the snow fell thru in the winter. There was one water tap for 150 people. There was a latrine we dug, outside.
We got up early in the morning, and were given some warm black liquid they called coffee. At lunch time we got some thin soup which sometimes had a piece of potato in it. In the evening we got a small slice of bread and a small piece of cheese or a small piece of salami. Escaping was not an option. Those who tried it paid with their lives.
As the first day of Passover dawned in 1945, we began the most brutal, the most bloody march of my Holocaust experience. It was a forced, slow, and steady march. Everything we owned was in our backpacks. Along the way we threw away almost everything, except our toothbrushes and our blankets, anything we did not have the strength to carry. It was a steady march. If one could not keep up, the guard warned once; GO. And if you had no more strength to walk, and stepped out of the group to stop, one could hear a gunshot, and another dead body was left behind by the roadside. The march lasted for three days. We had no food. I ate some of the grass I found in the fields.
Those of us who completed the march were made to board a large barge on the Danube River. The boat trip to Mauthausen lasted for approximately eight days. No food on board. It still boggles my mind how anyone could have survived this trip.
I would like to share with you one of the very sad experiences I had in Mauthausen. This must have happened sometime late in April 1945. We no longer worked. Inmates were dying from starvation in large numbers. Several of us who had been together during our Holocaust experience were standing in a small group and talking. One of us, a classmate from high school I had known well for ten years sounded very desperate, "I know the end of the war is very close, but I cannot see how we can get out of here alive. I just cannot take it any more." As he finished his sentence, this brilliant, promising young twenty-one year old dropped to the floor. He gave up hope and he died. He no longer had the strong faith and the glimmer of hope needed to survive.
I recall the day of my liberation. On Friday, May the 4th, the guards disappeared. As best we could tell, they were all gone by the evening. On Saturday morning, we started to leave; four of us walked out together. Along the road we saw some freshly planted potatoes. We dug them up and ate some. We had something to eat!!! We saw an American Jeep approach. They stopped. We spoke English. One of the American soldiers said, "Hitler is dead, Mussolini is dead, Roosevelt is dead, the war is over and you are free."
Shortly after liberation I became very ill with Fleck typhus, an illness carried by lice. I was twenty-one years old and weighed approximately eighty pounds. When I eventually got to a hospital, I was so sick I did not have the strength to turn in my bed. I was convinced my life was over. When eventually I recovered, and had the strength to walk, the hospital discharged me. I was homeless, barely able to walk, and with no place to go in a foreign country. And all I had was the shirt on my back and the unshaken hope and faith that kept me alive and going when the going got tough.
I spent a year in displaced persons' camps working as a volunteer and interpreter for the United Nations Teams that managed the displaced persons camps and for the American Army Military Command. I came to America when immigration opened in 1946.
I should say a few words about my life in Hungary. I was born and grew up in Budapest. We were a middle class family, owned a printing business where all of us worked. Hungary had anti-Jewish laws since the conclusion of World War I (1919). When Hitler came to power in Germany, the life of Jews in Hungary rapidly deteriorated. And for most Jews there was nowhere to go.
There was no Kristallnacht in Hungary. However the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, the largest Jewish Temple in Europe, was bombed by the Hungarian Nazis on a Friday night in 1942 at the end of services. I was inside the synagogue when it happened. Luckily I did not get hurt.
Since Hungary had an anti-Semitic government, the Nazis did not occupy it until early 1944. Then all Jews, except the ones living in Budapest were deported to Auschwitz. The Jews in Budapest were put in a Ghetto, including my family. I was in a slave labor camp in Budapest, and in the fall of 1944 - eighty to a boxcar - I was deported to Austria and was a slave laborer under the Waffen SS.
What happened to my family? My brother Pista was a slave laborer, who perished on the Eastern front in World War II. My sister Kato and my cousin Eva were brutally murdered in the Ghetto in Budapest. And a large part of my extended family was deported to Auschwitz and never returned.
Today, all of us came to remember the six million Jews. and also the many other victims of genocide all over the world who were not Jewish, And so many of us came to remember special people we loved, special people we cared for. Some perished in Concentration Camps, some in ghettos, some as slave laborers. Today we remember them all, all our martyrs. We must remember the Holocaust and make sure it never happens again! Anywhere!
And I would like to suggest that there is something very simple each of us, all over the world, can do, starting today: We can learn to change our thinking from tolerance to acceptance. We tend to treat people we accept a lot better than those we only tolerate. For those of us in the audience, who survived the Holocaust, I would like to offer a special prayer, a prayer of our teacher Moses; I paraphrased from Psalm 90 verse 12. Teach us to count our days, so that we can make every one of them count.
For me, the Holocaust ended sixty-six years ago. The memories live on. But today they are shared with my wife Iby. We celebrated our 56th wedding anniversary last year with our four married children and our nine grandchildren. And if on that day sixty-six years ago, when I walked out of Gunskirchen, starved and beaten, homeless, alone in the world, my body full of lice, with no hope for the future, someone said to me, "Sixty-six years from today you will be living in America" and described to me my world today, I would have said, "There is no way to get from here to there. It is just NOT possible." Yet, we just remembered the Holocaust together, today, in America. Perhaps, just perhaps, IT IS POSSIBLE!!!
Please join me in reciting the Shechecheyanu, my family's favorite traditional blessing: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season. (Amen) And let us all - say -- together: Amen.
By George G. Heller