Liberation 70 years ago a ‘rebirth day’
Holocaust survivor recalls time in slave labour camp
MONTREAL — Everyone has a birthday, but Montrealer Paul Herczeg also has a “rebirth day.”
Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the day American troops liberated him from Muehldorf, a satellite camp of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
“A cat has nine lives. I used up eight. I have one more left,” quipped Herczeg, 87, a retired businessman who was just 16 when he was deported with his parents from Hungary to Auschwitz in June 1944. His mother was sent to the gas chamber while Herczeg and his father became slave labourers.
In the late summer of 1944, they were sent to Muehldorf, near Munich, where the Nazis were building a secret jet factory in the Bavarian forest.
The Nazis began implementing the Final Solution within weeks of occupying Hungary in March 1944. About 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom 325,000 were killed in the gas chambers.
“They say that people remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated,” said Herczeg, a fifthgeneration Hungarian who grew up in a secular Jewish family in Újpest, a suburb of Budapest.
For him, the indelible moment is when he was first forced to wear a yellow star, setting him apart as a Jew.
“I went out on the street. I started to cry,” he said.
“So I went back and I remember, I spoke to my mother.
“She hugged me and looked up. She told me, ‘I don’t believe in God anymore.’
“That moment is in here, I can never forget,” he said, touching his heart.
In April 1944, Jews were relocated to ghettos before being deported.
“When they marched us to the ghetto, which was about eight kilometres or so, people were applauding. That made me very, very bitter about life,” he recalled.
Two months later, residents of the ghetto were marched to a brick factory and loaded onto cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.
On arrival, “everyone was in shock,” as prisoners were sorted into two lines, one destined for the gas chamber and the other to a labour camp.
“All I remember is I see a German officer, very well dressed, in front of me as we were lining up. He just waved with his hand, left or right. I was pushed to the right with my father and my friend.”
His last glimpse of his 48-year-old mother was seeing her help elderly people and translate from German for her companions.
At Muehldorf, Herczeg hauled sacks of cement to build a vast, underground jet factory in a forest whose foliage hid it from Allied bombers.
Slave labourers subsisted on 1,000 calories a day while working 12-hour shifts, rotating between days and nights. Most, including Herczeg’s father, died within six weeks.
Herczeg realized he would not survive much longer and determined to escape.
One morning before dawn, he hid instead of joining his work brigade. But when he emerged from his hiding place, a middle-aged SS officer spotted him and asked what he was doing.
“I was shaking. I couldn’t answer,” said Herczeg, expecting to be shot.
But instead, the officer took him to the kitchen barracks, where half a dozen youths his age were peeling potatoes, and told him this would be his job from now on.
“He saved my life,” Herczeg said.
“Either he knew the war was finished or he had a good heart,” he said.
With Allied victory imminent, prisoners at the camp were loaded onto a train bound for the Alps, where the SS planned a last stand.
U.S. troops intercepted the train, preventing the Nazis from carrying out their plan of killing the prisoners.
Despite his wartime experiences, Herczeg is not bitter.
He has often visited his father’s grave in a German cemetery where his remains were moved after the war.
Noticing that somebody had been lovingly tending flowers on the grave, he left his business card and ended up becoming fast friends with a couple who had been looking after his father’s grave.
“The gentleman in this couple was born in 1945. He said to me, ‘You were reborn in 1945. So we will celebrate our birthdays forever,’ ” said Herczeg, who has a daughter, TV journalist Lynn Herzeg, and two grandchildren.
He immigrated to Canada in 1947 and founded a successful import-export business after doing a variety of odd jobs, from waiting tables to setting up pins in a bowling alley.
He has spoken at schools, churches and on the Radio-Canada show Tout le monde en parle to keep the truth of the Holocaust alive.
“My duty is to maintain the memory of these people. This is the only weapon I have against the revisionists, to be an eyewitness to the truth,” he said.