International Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27: What We Can Still Learn

January 26, 2016

CREDIT: Vincent Steurs

The journey of a refugee is never forgotten. The sense of danger just behind, of hope just ahead, and of uncertainty ever present is indelible.

I vividly remember many things about my Holocaust experience: being forced from my home, my three-day journey in a closed cattle car, and losing my father at Auschwitz. But, this Holocaust Memorial Day, I am also reflecting on what came afterwards. The pictures on the news of today's refugees struggling to find a place to live takes me back to my own two-year journey to the United States.

My life as a refugee began the day my life as a prisoner ended. On that morning in the spring of 1945 I awoke in the concentration camp in Eastern Germany that had been my home for almost half a year. As soon as I stepped outside my barracks I knew that something was different. There was no one in the watch towers; the SS guards had all vanished. My friends and I watched from the front gate as a Russian soldier on horseback slowly materialized from the thick fog. We cried in each others' arms when the soldier shot the lock off the gate and told us we were free.

With the help of the Red Cross I made my way back to my hometown in Hungary. A few weeks later my mother and two sisters also returned, making our family very unusual in the history of the Holocaust: four out of five of my nuclear family survived (though 100 of 107 extended family members perished). But we no longer had a home: our house had been stripped bare by neighbors, and before we were deported many of the people in our town had revealed themselves to be hostile anti-Semites, shouting at us and striking us when they saw our yellow star.

On my sister's wedding night, just after her return, I heard on the radio that our town was about to be occupied by the Soviet Union. I knocked on their window and told them we had to flee. My sister Lily, her husband George and I made plans to escape as the new Soviet border was being drawn. My other sister and my mother decided they would leave later—a decision that split our recently reunited family for decades.

We bribed border guards and made our way to Austria. There, we were housed in a displaced persons camp, and our lives were placed on hold for two years. We were among the lucky ones, for we were assigned to an apartment; many survivors found themselves living in places that were all too similar to the camps from which they had recently been liberated. We were desperate to start again, but were in limbo as we waited for approval to emigrate to America.

It was two years before we finally boarded a military transport ship to the United States. We ate what the soldiers ate—and I discovered ketchup. I thought Americans were the cleverest people on earth to have come up with something so amazing. Relatives from Pennsylvania met us in New York City. They had planned to show us the city before taking us home, but when they saw our coats sewn from blankets, they decided to bring us straight back to Scranton. Still recovering from the deprivations of the concentration camps, and the poverty of the displaced persons' camp, I was stunned when I opened their refrigerator. To this day I keep a photograph of the well-stocked shelves.

Almost 70 years later, as a U.S. citizen and a veteran, I watch the struggle of today's refugees on my television screen, and listen to the politicians falling over themselves to outdo their rivals' xenophobia. I cannot help but be reminded of how Jewish refugees were turned away from these shores in the late 1930s and sent home to be murdered in extermination camps. And yet I also remember how, a decade later, this country welcomed survivors like me with open arms.

When I see German people lining the streets to greet Syrian refugees with shopping carts full of food, it is clear to me that the world can change for the better. But when I see presidential candidates fanning the flames of fear, declaring that we should keep Muslims out, and trying to turn our citizens against people desperately in need, I fear that we are returning to the closed America of 1937, rather than the welcoming country of 1947.

On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember the suffering, death and destruction of the camps. This year I also ask you to make a human connection to today's refugees. When you see them on your television or in your community, try to walk in their shoes: imagine having lost loved ones, imagine having no possessions except those you can carry, imagine having left your home in terror, and imagine yet still having hope that propels you forward and lets you dream of a new beginning.

And imagine, if you found yourself in their situation, what it would mean to be welcomed to a new country where you could live once more in peace and safety. Like me, you would be devoted to your new home. You would be honored to serve in this country's military, be eager to work hard to make a contribution to your community, and be forever grateful for the opportunity to raise your children to uphold the values of freedom and tolerance.

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