Thursday, Jul 29, 2021

My Uncle Speaks

Yirmiyohu speaks to us. He laments the destruction he is witness to as the Bais Hamikdash burns and the Jewish nation is taken into exile. The road is covered with blood. The novi throws himself to the ground. He sees the imprint of children’s steps walking into captivity and kisses the little footprints.

The pain of this ninth day of Av is not limited to the destruction of our two Botei Mikdash. We cry for the suffering we have endured. We grieve for lives lost, murdered, ravaged, gassed, stabbed, and bombed because we are Jews. Hatred is spewed toward Israel and rabid anti-Semitism is alive. This is the definition of golus.

I made a promise.

I gave my word to my dear Uncle Yanky, Rabbi Yakov Jungreis, that I would not allow his story to be forgotten.

And so I find myself, notebook and pen in hand, sitting at the table of my beloved mother’s brother.

We sit for hours.

When I leave my uncle’s home, the words of Yirmiyohu hover in the air. I am holding my own Book of Eicha. Each page cries out to be shared and remembered. I will do my best to bring justice to the sacred memories my uncle entrusted to me. They haunt my soul.

My Uncle’s Voice

Uncle Yanky describes walking to school as a child:

“Bidosh Zsido! Dirty Jew! You killed G-d!”

I do not understand the meaning of these words. Every day, the taunts are thrown at me. I am a frightened little boy, but this is life. We do not know anything different or how terrible things will become.

One day, I am standing next to my father, your zeida, Rav Avraham Halevi Jungreis zt”l, in the room filled with his holy seforim. A man comes in. Mama invites him to eat with us.

His eyes are hollow. Dark. He says he escaped a concentration camp.

“Rabbi! You know they are making soap out of our people?”

My father’s hat falls off. His head slumps down into the table. Mama cries out. “That cannot be!”

No one believes it. It can’t happen here. Hungary is a cultured country. Our city, Szeged, is a civilized city. We have colleges, universities, plumbing, and electricity. We have art and music, museums and concerts.

Wild rumors fly, but we cannot fathom such atrocities. Those who dare talk about death camps are shouted down or called alarmists. There are no news stories or radio shows revealing the murder of the Jews. Many who had been taken away were forced to send postcards back saying that they were fine and will soon be home.

Later, when we want to leave Hungary, there is no getting out. Even if we could, no country in the world wants us. There is no spot on earth for a Jew to find shelter.

Soon after, people start arriving during all hours of the night. They are running across the border, smuggling themselves into Szeged.

At two a.m. we hear a frantic knock.

“Vers duz? Who is it?”

“A Yid.”

A Yid? We must open the door. I never know where I will be sleeping. Mama spreads sheets in the corner of every room. Fifty people cram into our home, looking for a place to breathe.

In time, Szeged will become a stifling ghetto.

“Young men drag the millstone, and youths stumble under the wood. Gone is the joy from our hearts, our dancing has turned into mourning” (Megillas Eicha).

Young Jewish boys are forced to join work brigades and slave labor camps. They are brought to our city because we are near the Tisza River, a hub for travel. Once a month a boat takes 300 of our finest boys to Bor, where they are forced into backbreaking labor. There, many are cruelly shot, sent on death marches and slaughtered.

Zeida and Mama are anguished. These beautiful, Jewish, young neshamos are being sent to their death. We cannot turn our backs on our brothers, but how can we possibly help them?

Zeida and Mama speak to the Jewish doctors of the city.

“How can we get these boys to miss the boat and escape their death sentence? How can we help them be sick enough to avoid this fate but then get well?”

In Mama’s kitchen, concoctions are made: One with unpasteurized milk, another with soybeans crushed into powder. If injected, one will get high fever for 48 hours. If the paste is put onto the eyelids, it mimics trachoma. But how to get these vials
to the boys?

• • • • •

Uncle Yanky described how Zeida would take my mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis a”h, then a little girl, along with him to visit these young men. As Chief Rabbi of Szeged, Zeida was given some precious time with the prisoners. He blessed each one with his tears, lovingly embraced them and davened with them. Mama sewed the poisonous vials into my mother’s coat lining. While no one was looking, the vials were given over and countless lives were saved. There was never a doubt that whatever could be done to save the life of another must be done. Feel the pain of your brothers and sisters. Never look away from the suffering of your people.

• • • • •

Midnight, June 1944. A knock at the door. “Pack up! You will need to leave your house!”

Mama wakes us up and bathes us one last time. We spend three days at the railroad station. Zeida takes only the handwritten kesav yad of his illustrious ancestor, Rabbi Modche Benet, and the heilig tefillin given to him by his own zeida. Throughout our days in the concentration camps these precious belongings infuse us with continuous emunah and chizuk.

We are kept in pop-up tents. There is a torrential downpour. We are freezing, hungry and frightened. In middle of the night, your mother develops a high fever. Zeida searches for an aspirin. Three hours later he returns; there is no aspirin. Zeida and Mama hold your mother in their arms, rocking her while they cry. I sit across from them, silent. I can’t bear to watch my parents suffering. But when I look away, I feel guilty.

I am eleven years old.

They push us into cattle cars. There are barking German Shepherds and rifles. Many people are jammed on top of each other. We suffocate. People scream, “I have no air! I have no air!” We do not know it at the time, but we are being taken into the Valley of Death, Bergen Belsen.

• • • • •

To you who are reading these words, there is much left to be written. Our space here is limited.

This Tisha B’Av, take a moment to mourn for our nation, for a world that was. Cry for Am Yisroel. There is so much pain. Yearn for geulah. Let us resolve to be kinder, less judging. We have been through enough suffering. We must unite as one.

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