Holocaust survivor David Ehrlich speaks on Jan. 25. (photo by Pat Johnson)
David Ehrlich grew up in a small city in Hungary, sleeping in the kitchen of the family’s three-room house – “not three bedrooms, God forbid, three rooms” – and it was through the kitchen curtains early one morning that he saw three bayonets before he heard a knock at the door.
“I opened the door, they came into the kitchen and they said to me in German – there were two Hungarian gendarmes and one German soldier or officer or whoever he was – ‘I want you to bring in the family into the kitchen.’”
Young David gathered his parents, sister, three brothers and grandmother and they assembled in the kitchen, where they were told to be on the street in 30 minutes to prepare for deportation to a work camp.
Ehrlich shared his story Jan. 25 at a commemoration marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day (which was Jan. 27). The afternoon event, which took place at the University of British Columbia, was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Hillel BC, the department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies at UBC (CENES) and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, with support from the Akselrod family in memory of Ben Akselrod.
After two weeks in a makeshift ghetto on a local farm, the 7,000 Jews were forced onto trains, said Ehrlich. Seventy people were pushed into each car.
“These were not cattle cars,” he clarified. “I wish they had been cattle cars because [cattle cars] are ventilated.” There was one little hole at the top of the car, covered with barbed wire, and a child would occasionally be lifted up to look out to see if the signs outside were in Hungarian, German or Polish.
“But, soon enough, the train stopped,” he said. “They opened up the door … and there were some signs and some smells and some visions that I’ll never forget as long as I live. The place had electric lights … barbed wire all over in all directions.
“Little people – I thought they were little, but they were prisoners – came up to the train and said leave everything there, stand in line, five abreast. And we did that and walked over to this man with a stick in his hand and he was doing the selection. Who is going to live, who is going to die.… They played God. About 10 minutes or so later, we were separated from our family.”
While he was receiving his uniform, Ehrlich got his first lesson in what this place – Auschwitz – was all about.
“Did you say goodbye to your family?” the man asked Ehrlich.
“I said, why should I? I’m going to see them probably this afternoon. He said, while you were taking a shower, your family was gassed and, while we talk here, their bodies are probably being burned in the crematorium.”
Ehrlich’s brothers were almost immediately sent on to Melk, a sub-camp of Mauthausen, in Austria.
Because Hungarian Jews were among the last to be deported to the camps, the Soviet army was already advancing from the east by the time Ehrlich arrived at Auschwitz and the prisoners were sent on a death march westward. He, too, ended up in Melk and found someone from his hometown who knew the fate of his brothers. They had been sent to the hospital a few days earlier. Ehrlich knew that the hospital was a farce and that being sent there meant certain death.
“That was probably my lowest point in the whole deal because I always felt that I’d meet up with my brothers someplace,” he said. “I did, only a week too late.”
As the Russians kept on moving westward, the Nazis marched Ehrlich and the others further, this time to Ebensee, Austria.
“One day – it was a nice sunny day – we went outside and the loudspeaker came on and the president of the camp said, I’ve got good news for you. I have received orders from the Reich that we are to take you into the mine and blow it up with you in it. But I’m not going to do that – that’s the good news. For the first time since I’m in the services of the Third Reich, I’m going to disobey this order.”
He told the prisoners that they were free. The next day, they heard tanks on the cobblestone streets.
“And a guy that was probably 20 years old – like a kid, he looked like me – got out of the manhole and said to us in Yiddish, ‘Ich bin ein Amerikaner Jude,’ ‘I am an American Jew.’”
After liquids, then vitamins, eventually solids, Ehrlich regained some of his health. After two months, he still weighed less than 100 pounds, but he was ready to go home.
“But going home for Holocaust survivors, whether it was to France or to Germany or to Poland, it was the same thing,” said Ehrlich. “Canadian soldiers, American soldiers came back from the war, they came back to their community, to their parents and to their country. We went back and there was nobody there. My sister [who had been liberated in Lithuania] was there but we lost everybody else.”
Ehrlich wasn’t going to stay behind the Iron Curtain. He and a friend wanted to see Paris, planning eventually to head for pre-state Israel.
“But, while we were waiting in Paris, there were rumours that Canada was looking for orphans to go to Canada,” he said. “I went to work as soon as I came to Canada. I was going on 19. I went to work and I’ve been paying taxes ever since.”
The story has a good ending, Ehrlich told his audience.
“I married a wonderful girl – she’s right here, the little grey-haired girl – 65 years ago and we’re still together and we brought up three wonderful sons.”
Rabbi Philip Bregman told the survivors: “We are tremendously aware of how precious you people are who lit these candles and came in today as personal witness.”
The commemoration also featured Prof. Uma Kumar, of CENES, who said the Holocaust is a contemporary issue because antisemitism is a contemporary issue. “For this reason,” she said, “it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”