I was once more listening to the rhythm of the wheels, that cradled my tired body, soothed and quieted my thoughts. I could still see my three sisters-in-law standing on the platform of the railroad station ... the streets of Budapest ... the houses that resounded not so long ago with the lamentations of sufferers, with the cries of anguish of the hunted ... they, the houses have lost their ethos, they were silent as I had looked at them from the outside. The tragedy of recent months was already hushed in the silence of history ... the river that had witnessed so many horrors was rolling on, oblivious to the crimes or sorrows of men. I was tired, mentally and physically, and I wished I could make my mind a blank.
Houses, fields, telephone wires, warehouses, railroad stations, tools left outside, animals, sounds; the train brought them so close, left them so rapidly behind. The inscriptions on the houses, the language an the signs of stores had changed. I was in Czechoslovakia. Praha ( Prague ), announced a road sign that had an arrow indicating the direction. Military vehicles, Americans ... it was so good to see them! Their sight gave me a feeling of freedom, like an electric shock. There still exists freedom in the world, I thought; the horrible danger of the enslavement of mankind by the Nazi hordes has been overcome Noticing the first American soldiers in the outskirts of Prague, Hitler's defeat became a living reality to me. Knowing something by means of a mental process is not the same as a personal experience that flashes through your mind and establishes the actuality of the event.
I then beheld the Russian army camps at the approaches to the same city. My elation about my and the world's new freedom abated immediately. I had learned enough about the kind of freedom that the Russian army brought to the world during my flight from the slave labor column, during my stay in Rumania, to lose my illusions about it.
In Prague, Americans and Russians were together for the time being. General Patton's army had arrived there first, but the Yalta agreement conceded Czechoslovakia to be in the sphere of interest of the Soviet Union. This agreement is still weighing upon Czechs and Slovaks to this day. Recent history shows that it will not be easy for them to get rid of the yoke
For some reason, unknown to me, our train was directed to pass through Germany, to criss-cross it before entering Austria. With a great detour and great delay, we arrived in Bregenz, the last Austrian station before the Swiss border.
Both the Austrian and Swiss guards came aboard for routine inspections. The Austrians left and the Swiss examined my papers, and then a new surprise awaited me.
"Your Swiss visa has expired. You cannot pass the border," the inspector said.
I felt my blood rush to my head. I thought I was going to collapse.
"But," I stammered, "I am traveling with a diplomatic passport."
"That is true," the inspector answered, "but you still need a visa to enter Switzerland. Yours had expired ... you must renew it."
He was courteous but unshakable. The train was halting only for a short while. I had to pick up my luggage and get off, letting it pass the border. I held my head with my two hands. What am I going to do? I tried to collect myself, regain control of my thoughts.
Who could help me in this emergency? The Embassy of Rumania, I concluded. They could prevail upon the Swiss authorities to let me pass. I called the Rumanian Ambassador, Mr. Franasovici in Berne, explained to him my predicament, and to my great surprise, he knew of me and had heard of my departure from Bucharest. He promised to act in my behalf. I should spend the night in a hotel, and I would be called. He asked me whether I had any money. I told him that the Foreign Ministry in Bucharest had granted me two thousand Swiss francs, and that I still had something left from this sum.
The Ambassador kept his word. The next morning was called by the stationmaster of Bregenz, who asked me to come as soon as possible. The inspector from the other side of the border was waiting for me.
The new visa was stamped into my passport then and there. I immediately telephoned my family from the border, advising them of my arrival on the next train leaving Bregenz. I had lost one day by this incident, but finally I was inside Switzerland, en-route to Zurich. My odyssey was nearing its end. What my feelings were at this juncture of my life, I cannot tell; anything I would say would sound as mere cliches.
There we were, face to face, my wife with my son, my father and mother, my sister, Esther, and her goad husband at the Zurich station.
We kissed each other's tears off our faces, unable to speak. The women were shaking with sobs, trembling like fearful birds.
We arrived at my sister's apartment and it took some time before we were strong enough to tell each other about our unbelievable experiences. The truth surpassed fiction. Theirs began with the departure for Bergen Belsen, Germany, of the special contingent of Jews, hostages in the "goods for blood" deal worked out by Kastner with the unspeakable Eichmann, in December, 1944. My parents and my wife tried to console each other with the hope of eventual freedom. In Bergen Belsen they were not sent to the extermination camp in which so many of their fellow Jews perished in the same locality; nevertheless, their situation was far from enviable. They were in a state of suspense, as it were, liable to be thrown into the gas chamber in case there arose any difficulty in the negotiations with the Nazis. Meanwhile, they were kept on a starvation diet, and had to stand outside in driving rain, in bitter cold or whatever the weather was during the many roll calls.
My little son had broken out with the measles during their transfer to the camp. Of course, there could be no question of medication of any sort. Nature helped him recover. While in camp my wife gave him some of her own food rations. The fact that she herself did not starve was in itself a miracle. I suspect, though I was not told, that my mother cheated at times, adding part of her own rations to that of her daughter-in-law, to save the latter from complete exhaustion. Thus, from sacrifice to sacrifice, sustaining each other by deeds and words, somehow they managed to survive.
Orders had arrived about September, 1944, to their camp to the effect that part of the contingent was to be released, while the rest would continue to be kept till the deal abroad was concluded. Among the former were included my parents, but not my wife and son. The thought of leaving their grandchild and his mother behind, still in the clutches of their tormentors, while they themselves went free, was unbearable for my old parents. A truly Shakespearean scene took place between them and the commander of the camp. My mother beseeched him to let the young woman and the child leave and allow them, the old people, to remain instead. She knelt before him, embraced his knees, entreating him, crying. The commander declared that he could not accede to their entreaty; he hard. his instructions. Their departure toward freedom was therefore embittered by their separation from my wife and son. Fortunately, Kastner had succeeded in concluding his negotiations regarding this contingent, and in December, 1944, the last hostages were allowed to leave Bergen Belsen for Switzerland. They had to carry their food, and march miles to the train that was waiting for them, a last act of cruelty on the part of their jailers; this hardship, however, was insignificant in comparison with the feeling of relief which overwhelmed them in those final hours of their captivity.
Upon hearing the story of the tribulations of these beloved souls, and meditating upon my own, on the many miracles that had saved us and brought us together again, a mystical thought occurred to me. The Bible says that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their descendants to the third and fourth generation. I said to myself that the converse must also be true, for the Bible clearly states that the merits of the ancestors secure the blessing of the Lord to their descendants. Certainly, pursuing this reasoning, I personally was not worthy of the obvious and miraculous protection thanks to which I had escaped from the hands of murderers; there must have been intercession on the part of the departed of my ascendance on my behalf. This, I continued, was also true of my wife. Her ancestors, great rabbis and wise humanitarians, revered spirits, must hate interceded with the Lord, so that our lives were preserved and dedicated to the preaching of His word for the betterment of mankind. In formulating this thought, I remembered the great Goethe whose Faust is saved from the grasp of the evil spirit by the intercession of Margaret; I also remembered Ibsen, who expressed this same idea of intercession in his play, Peer Gynt. And, of course, the words of the Psalmist came upon my lips:
In that first hour of our reunion I vowed that by my deeds I would make myself worthy of God's special protection that had been manifested to me.
I communicated the results of my meditations to my father. He nodded and said, "The ways of the Lord are impenetrable. It is impossible for us, small human beings, to understand the true meaning of our great tragedy. I feel however, that the Second World War with its horrors, devastations and suffering constituted the punishment for the sins of mankind. As to us Jews, we failed to seize the opportunity to build our own homeland offered to us by the Balfour Declaration. We remained insensible to it, clinging to our comfort in the dispersion rather than abandon it and go pioneering in the Land of Israel. That was our guilt ... our special guilt, for which we have paid so dearly."
We discussed on this occasion my possible return to Cluj, to replace him as Chief Rabbi, to resume our spiritual leadership over our congregation. I informed him of the realities of the situation; religious life was suppressed under the Communists, religious leaders had to conform to their orders, compromise with them, in fact, become their propagandists. There could be no question of spiritual leadership in the old, traditional sense; there could only be betrayal of that idea. In view of this fact, I told my father, I could do more for Judaism and for religion in general, by being active outside of Rumania. I related once more my encounter with the Russian Jewish officer, who told me that I might not be allowed to exercise my profession there.
I was distressed to see how much the physical and moral suffering, endured by my father during the recent past, had aged him. He was but a shadow of his former self; only his eyes sparkled with their old brilliance; his body had become frail and weak. He told me that he had felt guilty about letting me volunteer far labor service; he had gone through a terrible agony after he had lost track of me. He had said to himself that if I had remained with them in Cluj ghetto, the chances were that I would have been saved with them. Then finally they received the news that I was alive. From that moment on, he was satisfied that my I going to the labor camp had been a great experience for me, that it would broaden my horizon, that my suffering had not been in vain. In 1950 my father visited Israel. He died in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1956 and was buried in Jerusalem. He left three books of his authorship: Dor Dorim ("Generation of Generations"), a theological dissertation written before the war; Sabbath and the Redemption of Israel, written in German in Switzerland; and another book in Hebrew, entitled Ikve Hatzon ("Footsteps of Sheep"), in which he optimistically discussed the future of Israel. I treasure these books that have been my companions to this very day.
The day following my arrival in Zurich I called Ambassador Franasovici to thank him for his help. He invited me to see him in Berne, an invitation I could not decline. At the Rumanian Embassy in the Swiss capital I was cordially received as though I had been a very important person. This was real hospitality offered by someone who expected no advantage of any sort in exchange for his kindness, a hospitality that spoke volumes for the character of the host. I regarded the attention of which I was the object as one given in memory, in honor of the legions of the victims perished in gas chambers, in death marches, shot by implacable guards, of those who had choked to death in airless cattle cars, or died of their wounds inflicted by their executioners. This hospitality was not an act of atonement - it could not be that - only a timid attempt at the reaffirmation of human solidarity. It reminded me of the gesture of my Hungarian friend in Cluj who apologized for the misdeeds of his compatriots. There are always individuals who suffer from suffering inflicted on others; they are the ones for the sake of whom one can forgive mankind.
My visit with the ambassador ended the same way in which my visit with my Hungarian friend had ended. In the same delicate way my host offered me money - a sum of one thousand five hundred Swiss francs - "to tide you over the first weeks in your new emigration." He assured me of his further protection in case of need, and wished me success in whatever I would undertake in behalf of my fellow refugees.
My knowledge of German and French, learned during my studies in Switzerland, enabled me to communicate directly with representatives of the Swiss press. The journalists were eagerly interested in whatever I could report to them about my past adventures, because I was the first survivor from Eastern Europe to reach Switzerland. I also was invited to speak before Jewish groups; I pointed out to them how much the countries visited by the war and the survivors of the concentration camps needed urgent and substantial help.
Tact and caution were my watchwords in moving in my new sphere of activity. Officially I was a guest in transit throughout Switzerland; my residence permit could be revoked any time in case the authorities judged that I abused their hospitality. I was not to agitate for the admission of Jewish refugees; throughout this period the Swiss were disinclined to grant the right of asylum of emigrees victims of racial persecution. True, a law enacted by the Federal Council protected the native Jews from hostile propaganda, prohibiting public incitement of racial or religious hatred; but the government expressed concern about the danger of foreigners ( i.e., Jews) taming over the border in great numbers. Since October, 1938, till the outbreak of the war in 1940, the Germans issued passports to Jewish emigrees stamped with an enormous letter J ( initial of Jude, Jew). Such a humiliating distinction actually originated from Swiss proposals; indeed, the Swiss were anxious to exercise complete control over the flow of refugees into their country. Switzerland should serve only as a country of transit, not of immigration.
Another regulation issued by the Swiss federal police in August, 1942, denied the status of political refugees to persons who "became refugees only on racial grounds, e.g., Jews." This abrogation of the traditional Swiss concept of the right of asylum and the resulting policy of barring the entry of untold numbers of Jews threatened by deportation and death were bitterly opposed by both Swiss Jews and large sections of the non-Jewish population. The effectiveness of this apposition, however, was negligible. Toward the end of the war, the number of Jews who had been permitted to take refuge in Switzerland did not exceed twenty-five thousand. Their needs were provided for primarily by the American Joint Distribution Committee and to some degree by the federal and cantonal governments. Substantial funds were also raised among the local Jewish community, as well as among the general population. Our own group of about seventeen hundred Jews, who in two contingents had entered Switzerland along with another group coming from the camp of Theresienstadt, owed their residence permits primarily to the negotiations conducted by Dr. Kastner, and also to the efforts of Swiss Jews.
It must be said in fairness to Switzerland that since the establishment of the State of Israel, it has been maintaining friendly, even cordial relations with the latter.
In the beginning of December, 1945, I received a letter from the Rumanian Legation of Stockholm. It informed me that a large number of Jewish refugees from Transylvania were streaming to Sweden. The Legation was doing all possible to come to the aid of these refugees, the letter added. The ambassador of Rumania to Sweden at that time was Mr. Duca, son of Gheorge Ion Duca, a former prime minister and head of the Liberal Party, who had been murdered in 1933 by members of the Iron Guard, a pro German, anti-Semitic organization that aimed at the establishment of a regime subservient to Hitler. In 1940 that party did come to power, and went down to defeat with the downfall of its idol. It was in the logic of things that the new Rumanian government sent Duca's son to represent it before a nation that always affirmed its independence both from Hitler and the Soviet Union.
During World War II, the Jews of Sweden were not molested. The Chief Rabbi of Stockholm, Professor Ehrenpreis, was respected as an outstanding representative of liberal theology. In contrast with Switzerland, Sweden showed the greatest willingness to extend its protection to the victims of Nazi persecution. In 1942, about nine hundred Norwegian Jews were admitted to Sweden; and in the next year, the Swedish government not only received about eight thousand Jews and some of their relatives from Denmark, but also an almost equal number of Danes fleeing from German occupation.
The Rumanian envoy in Stockholm further told me in his letter that he had read some of the articles published by the Swiss newspapers concerning my person and my preoccupation with the welfare of the survivors of Nazi concentration camps. He expressed his belief that in Sweden I could be useful to the new immigrants, because I spoke their language and was familiar with their lives prior to their deportation.
I pondered upon the ambassador's letter, and came to the conclusion that indeed, I was more needed in Sweden than I was in Switzerland. What I knew about the Swedish attitude toward the refugees, about public opinion in that country, and the backing by the. Swedish authorities of Raoul Wallenberg's heroic activities in Budapest, gave me high hopes that I too would find encouragement there in my efforts to bring material help and spiritual solace to my coreligionists. I therefore asked my family to pack.
The refugees in Sweden were not concentrated in one locality, but scattered all over the country. In their temporary quarters, they were given food, medical help and some money. As soon as they were physically able and medically discharged, they were trained in some trade or some practical occupation. The Jewish organization, ORT, was particularly active in this respect. A large percentage of the refugees were quickly absorbed in the Swedish economy. Nevertheless, there were thousands of those who, bodily or mentally, were still carrying the trauma of their recent ordeal, had lost their families and found themselves alone in a world to which they had difficulty in adjusting. One had therefore to make them feel that one cared for them beyond the mere providing for their material needs. Each of them had a story to tell, and each of the stories was heartrending. To achieve the goal of rehabilitation, it was of vital importance to establish a kosher camp where the Jewish dietary laws were observed and to have regular services to bring about a spark of hope to those refugees who desired to retain their traditional way of life. The kosher camp became an immense influence on the refugees who indicated their desire to be housed therein. The Friday evening services there were impressive; they culminated in collective singing and dancing which was a great booster of the morale of all. I was a frequent visitor for the Sabbath to that camp, leaving my family in Stockholm in order to enhance the religious atmosphere and the feeling of togetherness for which the refugees were craving. It was surprising for me to see how quickly ties of comradeship developed among these unfortunates, how their sense of humor, suppressed by the somber events of their recent tragedy, gushed forth, creating an atmosphere if not of happiness ( that was impossible), at least of acceptance of their fate.
After a few months of my stay in Sweden I wrote to my father, described to him the results of my efforts and invited him to visit me to see for himself. He came, traveled with me from one place to another, observed the Sabbath together with the members of the camp; and was quite impressed. He could hardly believe how those people who had suffered so much recently could start life afresh. He and I blessed, united in marriage, several new couples who found each other in their exile. It was a most satisfactory period of my life.
I must relate here an incident that remained indelibly imprinted in my memory. In Stockholm I was confronted with a refugee who had seen his young wife and his two lovely children separated from him and sent to the gas chambers by the infamous Dr. Mengele, the Black Angel of the camp of Auschwitz. With a stab of his thumb he had sent them to their death. The husband and father rushed to join them but the man shouted at him, "You stay" Mengele ordered him to work and he survived, hoping that by some miracle, his beloved had been spared and that they would be reunited eventually. He survived only to lose all hope, to live in total despair. Meeting him the first time I found him sullen, oblivious to his environment, sunk in deep melancholy. He would not answer my questions; he hid himself in a corner. I learned his story from others. He was receiving psychiatric treatment that seemed to have no effect whatsoever on him. At first, he did not participate in our common observance of the Sabbath, but would just stand at the door and look and listen. Once I told him that I would arrange to have the Kaddish (Memorial Prayer) recited for his wife and children. I asked him to tell me their Jewish names. He gave no answer, but the following week he handed me a piece of paper upon which he had inscribed their names in Hebrew. I invited him to come to the synagogue to attend the Kaddish prayer in memory of his dear departed. He came, sat in the background, and left after the end of the services. He came again the following week, and our cantor, together with the congregation, recited the Kaddish. The third week he came again, but this time the ice was broken. From the back where he had been sitting, he moved forward and joined in the prayer, while his tears were running down his cheeks. We left together at the end of the services and I held his arm. He said to me, "Thank you, Rabbi!" and again a tear was glistening in his eye. From that time on he was like reawakened to life. He spoke and worked with the others, set the tables, tried to help. Prior to my departure from Sweden, he volunteered to work somewhere and I lost track of him.
"The incident I have just related strengthened in me a thought that I had previously believed to be presumptuous, namely that the reawakening of religious feelings could remedy where psychology or psychiatry fails. I then reversed this thought to conclude that the so-called reevaluation of all values, that equates good and evil, proclaimed by cynics, has created this awful `mal de siècle' which has left an emptiness in the souls of people difficult to fill. Creative inventions begin in the solitary laboratory of scientists; similarly, destructive ideas germinate in solitary minds to infect a greater and greater segment of mankind:''
I could not have been effective in my work without the generous help and cooperation of a very great man, a humanitarian in the noblest sense of the word, the Count Folke Bernadotte. He, like his compatriot Wallenberg, became a martyr to his dedication to the ideal of helping the cause of peace on earth and goodwill among men. At the time of my stay in Sweden he was president of the Swedish Red Cross and it was in this capacity that he received me. From the first moment he offered me his cooperation in my efforts to help the refugees, a cooperation that he continued even after my departure from his country.
Count Bernadotte was very different from the type of person generally attributed to be the average Swede. Far from being reserved, he was warm-hearted, easy-going. In his company one felt immediately at ease. He told me that he had been informed of the death of many former inmates of Nazi concentration camps after their liberation by the Americans. They died simply because they had been overfed in the hours or days following their newly won liberty; their starved bodies simply could not take the heavy food they had been given. He warned me to be cautious in securing food for the camps; the physical condition of the residents of these camps should always be taken into consideration. I told him that a number of the refugees would not eat the food they were given on religious grounds, and that they were in danger of starving. Count Bernadotte thereupon was instrumental in helping me with the Swedish authorities to establish a kosher camp. We remained in close cooperation till the time of my departure from Sweden which occurred in February, 1948.
In the years 1947 and 1948, Rumania was transformed into a Communist state. My sponsor, Tatarescu, and all my friends in the Ministry and outside of the government had been replaced by Communists. There was some sort of panic among the refugees. They feared that Sweden, being so close to the Soviet Union, might be taken over by the latter as had been Rumania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In the latter country Jan Masaryk, son of the founder, Thomas Masaryk, was found dead in front of the window of his office building, and the Communists concluded that he had committed suicide; many, however, spoke of foul play. His death coincided with the complete take-over of the levers of command by the Communist Party.
In the beginning of 1948 I received an invitation to occupy the post of a rabbi in a Jewish congregation at Mexico City. The situation in Europe appeared to me somber enough. In Sweden itself the Rumanian Legation was now headed by spokesmen of the new regime; we could not expect from them any help. Rather I was described in Communist circles as conservative, which in their language meant reactionary. Most of my Jewish refugees had by that time left the camps. Many returned to the continent of Europe; others remained and found new homes for themselves. I had once more come to a crossroads in my life, threatened with being farther from my parents and friends in Switzerland and elsewhere. Count Bernadotte assured me that the refugees who still lived in camps would have his attention, and I knew that he would keep his word. My wife concurred with my opinion that having escaped from the Nazis, there was no reason for me to risk an entrapment by the Communists. I accepted the invitation to Mexico, to which country I proceeded via the United States.
It was in this year of 1948 that the State of Israel was born as a result of a resolution by the United Nations. The martyrdom of millions of Jews had not been entirely in vain; after two thousand years of exile in the dispersion, the Jewish people were given back their homeland, Israel. The Arab nations did not accept that resolution and attacked the newborn state. Count Bernadotte was sent out as a special representative of the United Nations to serve as an intermediary between the two feuding camps to bring about a peace between Arabs and Jews. He was assassinated in Jerusalem by terrorists. I mourned the death of this great man and cherish his memory as one cherishes that of a dear friend or a brother. I will never forget him.