Suzanne Klein was interviewed by Bill Logono and videotaped on August 12, 1995, as part of the Spielberg Foundation's Shoah program.
A Survivor's Story
My ChildhoodI was born in Romania. My father died in the First World War. He was a teacher. My mother was left with five children--three from my father's first marriage, my brother, and me. We were very poor. My mother had no money to support us, and finally, gave us up for adoption. I was adopted at the age of 31/2, and grew up in Budapest.
The Jewish community in Budapest was large at this time. Jews were economically situated-- they were shop keepers, store owners, doctors, lawyers--they were very educated. I went to a Jewish school, however, it was very poor. My mother (adopted mother) finally hired a private teacher that came to our home and taught me there until third grade. I had a very normal childhood; I frequently went to movies and took boat trips on the Danube. Sometimes, the hotels had big dances and we would sit and listen to music and dance, sipping hot cocoa and eating a danish. We enjoyed life.
When my adopted father died in 1925, I was thirteen years old. My father had been a manufacturer of ladies' clothes, and my mother took over the factory. I quickly learned to sew and worked in the factory as well.
The Beginning of PersecutionIn the late 1920s, early 1930s, Hungary set a quota that only a certain amount of Jewish children were allowed into Hungary's higher education system. Jewish parents, thus, sent their kids to Italy and other countries that didn't yet have a quota.
My mother didn't do so well managing my father's business, and pretty soon, I took over. I ran the business until 1942, when the Germans came in.
In the late 1930s, we heard news of what was happening in Germany. My mother brushed it off and said, "It's just propaganda." At this time, Hitler wasn't taken very seriously. People closed their eyes and didn't believe it. At this time, my brother, who was living in Germany, came to live with us in Hungary.
I belonged to a Zionist organization, Batari, and soon became the leader. Our main mission was to illegally get people to Israel (Palestine). We would buy boats, and people paid to go. I asked my brother to go, but he didn't want to. Because my mother insisted there was nothing to worry about, we didn't go. Furthermore, I couldn't get a passport because I was born in Romania, and with my adoption, I never obtained citizenship. I couldn't leave.
A Ghetto is FormedIn 1941, I got married and our daughter was born in 1942. When she was four months old, my husband was called to the Hungarian army to work detail 30 miles from Budapest. We were allowed no communication, but he somehow got word to me that they would be taken to the Russian front. I went with my sister-in-law where they were deporting him; I saw my husband in a wagon with other men and called out to him. He looked around, but I don't think he saw me. The wagon left. I never saw him again.
In 1943, I was notified that he was missing in action. No one in his group ever came back. I never found out what happened to him.
In March, 1944, German troops came to Hungary. In April, new restrictions were set for Jews. Mass deportations had been taking place all over the country, and soon began in Budapest in April. Jews now had to leave home and move into houses designated by a Jewish star. We had to wear a yellow Jewish star on our outer clothing. At this time, my mother was 66; my daughter was almost two.
My husband's aunt and uncle lived in one of the houses the Germans marked with a star and we moved in with them. We couldn't take any furniture--only a few of our belongings. We were 10 people sharing one bathroom, one kitchen.
Jews weren't allowed to read the newspaper. We were only allowed to go outside during certain hours. If we were found after curfew, we would be sent to a concentration camp or shot. And yet, there was never so many jokes and laughter as during that time--we were very hopeful; we laughed to keep up our spirits.
One evening, all the men in our building were called to go downstairs. Germans came to the door and raped one of the women in our building. They took our jewelry from us. All I had was my wedding band. My husband and I had once made a pact when we got married that if we ever were separated, we would kiss our wedding band before going to sleep at night, to remember one another. Before giving my ring to the Nazi, I kissed my wedding band. He pushed my hand back--didn't take the ring. He seemed ashamed--embarrassed. I will never forget this--the meanest man held a spark of goodness. He let me keep my ring.
DeportationIn November, 1944, all women under the age of forty were taken away. It was cold--we had to keep walking. Our first stop was an old, abandoned brick factory. Some people were taken from there. They had protective papers, given to them by the Catholic Church or Switzerland. (If you converted from your religion or had some connection or citizenship to Switzerland). We were only given a cup of soup to eat. It was raining, cold. We slept out in the open, with guards all around us.
"Where are we going?" One of us asked.
"You're all going to be killed," the guard answered.
I put one foot in front of the other. . .When they tell us to "sit down," we sat down. All we had was hope. We prayed, even those of us who were not religious.
In the group, I ran up with a friend from childhood. We decided together to try running, but someone saw us just as we stepped out of line, and we quickly got back before they would shoot us.
We came to the Hungarian-Austrian border and we were taken to an abandoned barn. Some days we got a piece of bread, some days, no food at all. We were taken to dig ditches to trap Russian tanks. We were weak, tired, cold, and hungry. The guards cursed and hit us because we couldn't move fast enough.
We were there for several days with no food. One day, a peasant saw us and had pity on us. One day, he came and gave us the dried corn he usually gave to his pigs. We grabbed it greedily, started eating it. Everyone was happy. The peasant, fearing his life, said, "Shhh, they'll shoot me if they see that I helped you!"
We soon became sick, our limbs frost-bitten. My feet were swollen and numb. Those of us in better health were separated from us. My friend was in better health than I-- she was taken away. I thought she would be saved. She was taken to Bergen-Belsen, where she died. After the war, her mother said to me, "You should never have let her go!" But how could I stop it? Her mother never talked to me again. She blamed me for her daughter's death.
We crossed the border to Austria, where we arrived at a train station. On the platform, German soldiers shoved us into the train, "God, do they stink," one of them said. Several hundred others joined us. It was a two hour ride to Lichtenberg.
They took us to a cement building with a high fence. Straw lay on the cold floor. We had to sleep there, on the straw, shoulder to shoulder in two rows. We spent months there, waiting. We tried to think about pleasant thoughts; we shared recipes of our favorite dishes. Around us, hunger, lice, filth, cold and sickness was the reality. I had a recurring dream that the war was over and I was with my family again, but I always woke up and found myself still there.
Sometimes, we got bread or some soup. Sometimes, nothing. The group selected me to divide the loaf of bread into pieces for all of us. (We were only given one loaf at a time.) Bread had to last us three to four days. Sometimes, more than a week would pass without food. That they chose me to divide the bread--that I was trusted this much--I believe, is the biggest honor of my life.
One man in our group wrote poetry. We used to pay him with our bread to read us his poetry. He frequently spoke of his wife and child. One poem he wrote held the line, "God, let me survive-- I will be a better man." He didn't survive.
When it EndedI got typhus that winter from the lice and fell very ill. At this time, the Judenrat came to the cement building and told us that the Russians were coming and the Germans had left. They told us to run. I ran, but collapsed in a haystack of a barn. The next morning, the farmer found me and gave me some tea. "The Jews brought this on themselves," he told me. "They started the war." This was the common opinion of the time.
Several of us found a deserted house in the nearby village and stayed there. One day, three little children came by. I was so happy to see children; I hadn't seen them for such a long time. They started calling Jews dirty names, enjoying it so. . .The little boy urinated on us. I wonder now, what kind of man he turned out to be.
The next day, Russian soldiers found us and were stunned at our appearance. We were skeletons. They gave us warm milk and fed us by hand. They brought the army doctor to care for us.
In May, I was taken to the hospital in Budapest. I wanted to go home but I was afraid of what I would find. I talked to a boy in the hospital who was visiting his mother, who had been brought from a concentration camp. The boy asked me for my home address, and agreed to go to my house to notify my family that I was still alive. (Someone from our neighborhood that had been in my group at the holding camp, had seen me collapse and had informed my family that I was dead.)
When my mother came to the hospital, she didn't recognize me. I didn't recognize my own daughter, as well.
Surviving OnI waited three years for my husband to return, but he never did. A cousin from my adopted family, who was in America, supposedly had been in love with me from childhood. He wrote me a letter, asking me to marry him, but I continued to wait for my husband. I finally gave up hope that he was alive, and wrote back. We married in 1948 and I moved to America. My mother came to America in 1951. My brother, I later learned, had died in a concentration camp.
My grandchildren wanted me to come forward with my story. They saw "Schindler's List" and said to me, "You never talk about it. . ."
I answered, "If you are interested, I will answer your questions." My story is the answer.
A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
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