This week on Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust, we’re listening to the testimony of Esther Schwartzman. Born in Mukachevo between the world wars, Esther was one of few Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust. Her story points to the broader history of the Hungarian Jewish community, its cultural complexity, and the inconceivable manner of its destruction. It also tells the extraordinary story of one young woman’s love for her family and her determination to survive.
Esther Schwartzman, née Ella Fried, was born in 1929 to Zigmond and Leah Fried, the middle child of five siblings. Her father traveled frequently for work in the textile and dry goods trade, but as a follower of the famous Munkaczer Rebbe, he always returned home before the Jewish Sabbath.
When Esther was born, Mukachevo was one of two majority-Jewish cities in the primarily rural and agricultural region of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. The region’s predominant ethnic group was the Rusyns, who were notable among Eastern Europeans for their lack of antisemitism. There were no pogroms, and many Jews from this area recalled friendly relationships with their Rusyn neighbors.
However, relations between Rusyns and Jews cooled with the rise of nationalism in Europe. Many Jews in Subcarpathian Ruthenia had embraced Hungarian culture between 1867 and 1918, when the area was controlled by the Habsburg Empire. They later sent their children to Czech schools when the region became part of Czechoslovakia. Rusyns suspected that their Jewish neighbors had little interest in Rusyn nationalism, and although they remained mostly bystanders rather than perpetrators, Rusyns offered little help to Jews during the Holocaust.
Esther’s childhood experiences and memories reflected the complex nature of Jewish life in her hometown. Her father was a follower of the Munkaczer Rebbe, Chaim Elazar Spira, and the family was very religious. He still sent Esther’s older sisters to secular, Czech-speaking schools, which was common practice for Jews in Mukachevo at the time. However, Esther attended a Rusyn primary school, which was quite unusual for Jewish children. At home, Esther’s family spoke Hungarian, a vestige of Habsburg rule when Jews were protected by Hungarian nobility and evidence of their solidly middle-class status.
When Esther turned nine in 1938, western Czechoslovakia was annexed by Hungary. Hungary allied itself with Nazi Germany in the hope of recovering some of its formerly vast empire. They implemented anti-Jewish decrees, which put many Jews out of business, including Esther’s father. Hungary also conscripted Jewish men into labor battalions that accompanied its armies into Russia, doing the most dangerous work, such as clearing minefields.
Yet, the Hungarian government did not allow the Germans to deport Hungarian Jews to the death camps. Esther and her family continued to live in Mukachevo, scraping together a living and celebrating Jewish holidays, even while most of Europe’s Jews were murdered just across the border in Poland. This was until March 1944, when Hitler installed a new, radical rightwing government in Hungary. Within days, Adolf Eichmann and special teams of SS arrived to plan the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. Between May 15 and July 7, almost 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. About two-thirds were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
When Esther and her family arrived at Auschwitz, her mother, younger sister, and younger brother were immediately sent to the gas chambers. However, she was selected for work, along with her father and two older sisters. Esther and her sisters left Auschwitz on a transport that went first to Stutthof and then to a labor camp at Braunau, where they were forced to build munitions for the increasingly desperate German war effort. Like many prisoners, Esther recalls attempting to sabotage the grenades she was filling with explosives.
In January of 1945, the approaching Red Army forced Germany to evacuate the labor camp on a death march. Miraculously, Esther and her sisters succeeded in escaping the march without being shot. They returned to Mukachevo to find little left of what had once been a thriving Jewish community. They left for Czechoslovakia and then made an illegal crossing into the American Zone in Germany. Four of their mother’s sisters lived in the United States and sponsored their immigration in late 1946.
Listen to Esther tell this story in her own words and learn about her life in the United States on S2E6 of Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.