N. Fürst: The man who survived three concentration camps and a death march

Words cannot describe what the fear, hunger and cold felt like, nor the moment when a child is reunited with their parents, Naftali Fürst said of his experience in the camps of Sereď, Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Naftali FürstNaftali Fürst(Source: Post Bellum SK)

"Throughout my narrative, I will often speak of what fear, cold and hunger are, but not all that we experienced can be expressed in words," emphasised Naftali Fürst as he narrated his story.

Naftali Fürst was born in 1933, as Juraj Fürst to a family of woodsmen in Petržalka, one of Bratislava's districts in the then Czechoslovakia. After the signing of the Munich Agreement in September 1938, Petržalka became part of the Third Reich. Juraj recalled his father had been mobilised shortly before and the family had been ordered to leave their flat.

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"When my father returned home, he was so desperate and angry that he took an axe and smashed all of our beautiful furniture to leave nothing in our flat," Fürst said. "My war started when I had to leave our house."

Avoiding deportation

In 1942, the government of the Slovak state began to organise the transport of the Jewish population. They also seized Juraj's uncle in Bratislava, who subsequently died alongside his wife and four-year-old daughter soon after in the extermination camp of Treblinka in German-occupied Poland.

Juraj's family tried to avoid the deportations. Relatives and friends from Vrbové, Piešťany and Nové Mesto nad Váhom, where Juraj's father came from, hid them. In towns and villages, any kind of stay was unbearable for them, among other things, because Juraj's parents were gradually running out of money with which they bought food and often a refuge.

"My father then learned they were building a labour camp and he thought it could be the way to save us," Fürst related. The whole family arrived at the Sereď camp in southern Slovakia on May 9.

"It turned out that it was not just a labour camp but also a concentration camp."

Camp at Sereď

As Juraj's father was a woodsman, he began to manage the carpenter's workshop at the camp. The family got a small room in barracks no. 1. Transports left for the territory of Poland every few days.

"We were lucky that our father was important to the camp and we were therefore not deported," Fürst claimed. When times settled, children could even play football and other games in the camp.

"When the deportations from the camp ceased, they set up a school for us and we began studying."

The children learned from their parents that the Germans were losing the war on the eastern front. They hoped to be liberated from their hardships. In addition, they felt the guards in the camp were somewhat reduced. The whole family therefore agreed to try and escape.

Read also:15 Slovaks have become Righteous Among the Nations

"Our father took us to a spot at the camp fence and said we would come back there with a ladder the next day to escape," Fürst recalled.

When they had all climbed over the fence, the children were told to go to Sereď. The family was not supposed to go together to avoid being noticeable. Two small children, one of whom was 11-year-old Juraj, therefore went to their father's friend.

"The uprising broke out two or three days later, and our parents came for us," Fürst added.

Family divided

The Germans soon began to occupy Slovakia, and the family had to go into hiding again. They could not stay in Sereď. They decided to hide at their grandmother's in Piešťany, western Slovakia. Their parents decided that all four should not go anywhere together. One day, Juraj's mother and his brother Peter went to visit the Kwittner family. Juraj was to follow on afterwards. Meanwhile, his father went out for a walk in the park near the Thermia Hotel.

"When I arrived at the house, I was immediately told that guards had come and taken the Kwittners along with my mother and my brother, no one knew where," said Fürst. "I was totally desperate and I ran to my father to tell him they had seized my brother and mother."

Juraj ran over the Glass Bridge to the park to find his father there. When he told him what had happened, it was the first time Juraj heard his dad shout out the prayer "Shema Yisrael".

Soon they learned that his mother and brother were being held in jail at the police station in Piešťany. Juraj's father stood no chance of getting to them. In the meantime, he sent Juraj to a shoemaker to fetch the shoes he had left there.

Father's escape

But when Juraj came out on the street, he saw a small truck with guards on it drawing near. He did not know what to do at that moment and just stood by the gate.

"I said to myself: 'If the truck passes down the street, I will go for the shoes'," related Fürst. "But if it stops in front of my grandmother's house, I do not know what I will do."

The truck stopped. Juraj was still standing by the gate. At that moment, someone from the street spotted the guards and cried out that Juraj was also part of the family.

"One of the guard members came to me and put me in the truck," described Fürst. "As he grabbed me, I could hear them shooting in the house."

He was sitting in the truck. A few minutes later, they brought out Juraj's grandma, who was completely white. She had been hidden in the flour. He did not know what had happened to his father.

"It turned out that as soon as my father saw the guards, he jumped over the fence and escaped," said Fürst. "The guards were firing shots at him, but they did not hit him."

His father was running towards the railway. Juraj stayed with his grandmother, alone, without his father, brother or mother.

Back to Sereď camp

On the second day, the guards transported them from Piešťany back to the camp. Juraj went straight to the barracks in which he had lived with his family before. There, he was reunited with his mother and brother but they soon realised that Sereď had changed.

This time, all the Jews who had been caught in Slovakia were transported to the camp. It was overcrowded. Transports left much more often than during the first wave of deportations. The Nazi Alois Brunner managed the camp. One of the main Holocaust architects, Adolf Eichmann, called Brunner his best man.

Read also:Barrack no. 3 shows how people lived in the concentration camp in Sereď

There were roll calls every couple of days to sort through the people and eventually deport the useless. Juraj and his family tried to avoid selection as best they could.

"We - my mother, grandmother, brother and myself – were once selected for a transport," claimed Fürst. "They chose between 900 and 1,000 people, who were then sent to the other side of the parade ground where people selected for deportations were standing."

His older brother Peter saved them shortly before the evening by forcing them to return to the side where those not selected for deportation were standing.

"I do not know where he found the courage, but we managed to save ourselves that day and stay in Sereď," Fürst recounted. "Our mum knew the longer we stayed in Slovakia, the greater the chance we would survive."

Roll calls

One night, everyone in the camp had to come to the parade ground. Somebody had apparently fled and the angry guards commanded everyone to run in a circle. Either a guard or one of the Germans was standing every ten metres, whipping and beating the prisoners. It took several hours. If someone fell from exhaustion, they poured cold water on them. Several people died that night.

The standard roll call was run by Brunner himself, who picked out people for the transports. The family were arranged in the queue from the youngest to the oldest, trying to hide their grandmother as much as possible.

Read also:A Slovak prisoner tattooed in Auschwitz, remained silent until he grew very old

"It must be said that we did not look like the Jews; we had blue eyes," Fürst added.

When Brunner and the guards came up to them, Brunner briefly looked at them and said in German: "You are Mischlinge - you are a mixed family." Peter confidently confirmed it. Then, Brunner asked what they were doing there if they were half-Jews.

"I do not know what we are doing here; we are here with my mother, my father is not here," said Peter.

"Go to that corner and stay there," Brunner replied. They realised this was to be a reprieve.

It was one of the worst situations we experienced in the camp, Fürst admitted.

"My mother had to leave our grandma on the parade ground," he continued. "She saved us but they deported our grandma and she never came back."

"I am not Fürst"

New Jews were constantly arriving at the Sereď camp. One day, Juraj and his family learned their father was among the new prisoners. When he had fled the guards, he joined the partisans. Later, the Germans captured him and transported him to Sereď. Juraj's mother sent someone to tell him not to reveal his name was Fürst to protect the family.

It was at that time that Brunner sent Juraj's brother outside the camp to bring in his "Aryan" father. Meanwhile, Juraj's mother managed to get her husband from barracks no. 3 and hide him in the carpenter's workshop. Their parents were careful that the guards should not find out they were a family.

However, one day, the children learned that their parents were crossing the parade ground to one of the offices of Sereď camp. Juraj and his brother thought then that it was their end. After the hearing, their parents had to choose between two options – they could be shot on the spot or they could get on the next transport.

Jumping off the train

Their parents decided that the whole family would jump off the train. Everyone already knew what was happening in the concentration camps. Their mother had sewn a variety of tools in the brothers' coats and had altered them to make the boys look bigger and stronger. She may have known such coats could save her children during the selection.

"The day before the transport, we talked to our parents and our father told us there was a terrible journey ahead of us and we had to do what we could before we got to the destination," said Fürst.

Juraj's father also explained how they would jump out of the train and run as far as possible from the track as the Germans on the train possessed machine guns.

"As an eleven-year-old, I felt like it was a sort of game," claimed Fürst. "I was not afraid, convincing myself it would be fun to jump out of the train…"

They left Sereď on November 2, 1944. When it became clear that the train was heading for German-occupied Poland, Juraj's father started opening the train door. He pulled out the tools from their coats and got to work. People grumbled and began to shout at him not to open it as they were afraid.

"I was very sad because I realised that we were probably going to die," Fürst said.

Their father had told them before they got on the train to be strong and believe they would survive.

"We promised one another that if they divided us and we survived, we would meet again in Bratislava at Šulekova 8 where our friends lived."

Read also:A hero who saved thousands of Jews

Auschwitz

They arrived at Auschwitz on November 3. The wagons opened and the outcry alongside barking dogs began. It was the first time that the Nazis did not make the selection on the ramp.

"Whole families entered Birkenau and were placed in the barracks," Fürst described. He added that the gassing in Auschwitz had ended on November 2 as the Germans wanted to cover their tracks and dismantle the gas chambers.

"Even so, when we arrived, smoke and fire were coming out of the chimneys, so the crematorium was still in operation."

In Birkenau, they began to starve. The brothers with their father were separated from their mother. The Germans also tattooed them.

"Dad was 14024, my brother 14025, and I was 14026," recalled Fürst. "Prisoners, who had lived in Birkenau for longer told us the tattoos meant the Germans would not kill us straight away."

Without parents

A few days later, the Germans sent their father to Dachau. Juraj and his brother stayed in Birkenau alone and ended up in the children's block.

"It was a terrible block because when the Nazis did not have enough people to send to a gas chamber, they always picked children to make up the numbers,” Fürst said. He added that they suffered from hunger and were beaten there.

Read also:Karolína gave her life to save the innocent

The children were ordered to march after several days. It was the first time Juraj saw the inscription: "Arbeit macht Frei." They heard the orchestra playing music, but they did not enter the camp. They came to a smaller concentration camp in fact. It turned out it was the farming camp at Budy. The conditions were terrible in the barracks of that camp.

Juraj recalled that it was often the case that people who were no longer able to get down from the upper part of the bunk beds urinated in their beds at night and the urine trickled onto the prisoners beneath them. However, a French doctor as well as a prisoner took care of Juraj. The doctor sheltered him in a small room that served as a doctor's office.

The sounds of bombing and artillery from the approaching front-line began to reach the camp soon after. The prisoners began to feel hope but the Nazis soon informed them they would all be gone by the time the front-line reached them.

On 19 January 1945, the prisoners from the Budy concentration camp set off on a death march.

Death march and the touch of humanity

"Before the march, we got some bread, a piece of margarine, and a slice of salami. I managed to get the medicines from the doctor's office, all those that were left there," Fürst said.

After they set off, they understood that thousands of people had marched down that road before them. There were dead, wounded, crying and shouting people lying on both sides of the road.

"It was like passing through the gates of hell, those images cannot be described. Blood, crying, dead bodies. There are no words," Fürst said. They were poorly clothed, marching in temperatures reaching -25 degrees, not knowing how far or where their destination was.

The convoy of hundreds of people spent the first night in a big barn. They went on the next day. Juraj and his brother understood that staying at the head of the marching crowd increased their chances of survival. Along the route, they met people who saw their suffering and wanted to help them.

"Not everyone was against us. It was like a little light, to meet a normal person. It was very important and precious for us," Fürst said.

On the third day, they made it to a train station, where they got onto open carriages full of snow. The train set off at night. Juraj opened the medicines, the last food they had. They licked the sweet coating off the pills until they became bitter, then spat them out.

Buchenwald concentration camp

The train made it to Buchenwald on January 23, 1945. After they got off the train, the "local" prisoners told them not to worry, that this wasn't Auschwitz. The newcomers got new numbers, Juraj was 14021 this time. A few days after their arrival, someone came to pick people for the next transport. Peter was on the list, Juraj wasn't. They started looking for a way to stay together. They found two Hungarian brothers in their barracks who faced the same fate. They agreed to exchange their names.

They let the Hungarian brothers choose, and they chose the transport. On that day, Americans bombed the station in Weimar at the very moment when the prisoners were getting on the train. Both Hungarian brothers died there.

Later, unknown people sought out Juraj in the barracks. It turned out that prisoner Antonin Kalinak, head of children's block 66 had founded and built an underground movement in Buchenwald. Here, Kalinak secured better conditions for 900-1,000 children. He saved many children, when he changed their Jewish names to Aryan ones. He later received the Righteous Among the Nations award for this.

But Juraj was no longer in the children's block, because he became seriously ill and his brother had taken him to the hospital. The front came closer to the camp and the evacuation began. Juraj recovered in the hospital, and along with other patients got an order to go and hide in a brothel. He did not know what a brothel was.

"The next day, they took us to another barracks," Fürst said. "It turned out that there was a Lagerbordell in Buchenwald. When I entered, two beautiful women stood next to me, blondes dressed in civilian clothes."

The inside of the barracks looked like a normal house, with carpets and lamps.

"The women who were there got to like me. They saw me as a small child and took care of me. I got food, pyjamas and chocolate, and they explained to me where I was."

Visits to brothels were allowed to selected prisoners, based on a coupon system.

Liberated in a brothel

After a few days, on April 11, 1945, Buchenwald was liberated from within, by the underground movement. Armed prisoners expelled the Germans from the camp, and in the afternoon, the Americans entered the already liberated camp. After the liberation, Juraj started collecting food for his brother, but he failed to find him. It turned out that one day before the liberation, some prisoners were put on a transport and sent to travel in open train carriages around Germany for a month, until they reached Theresienstadt on May 9. Only three people survived the month-long starvation.

Juraj returned to his aunt in Piestany. One day, he heard the name of his mother in a list of the people who had returned that was read out on the radio. Later he learned that his brother was alive in a hospital in Prague. Soon after, he also learned that his father was liberated too. His family was reunited.

"Just like fear, hunger, and cold cannot be described with words, it also cannot be put in words how a child feels when he meets his parents after all the things that happened, and how a parent feels to find their child again."

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