The International School for Holocaust Studies
“I owe my life to Kasztner, and to Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, Becher, Eichmann and Blaschke”-
An Interview with Holocaust Survivor Peter Rosenfeld Span
By Sheryl Ochayon
Peter Rosenfeld Span was born on May 19, 1938 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). Mr. Span currently lives in Los Angeles. He is a survivor of the Holocaust who spent most of World War II in Hungary and was then ghettoized and sent to transit and labor camps for the duration of the war, where he managed to survive. He has been giving lectures to junior high school students in Mexico and Los Angeles for the past nine years. This article is based on an oral interview conducted with Mr. Span in October, 2013, as well as on his unpublished manuscript, called "LOL* (*Laughing Out Loud) After 67 Years." Our thanks to Mr. Span and to his niece, Sandra Rosenfeld.
You were born in Yugoslavia. How did you come to be in Hungary (during WWII)?
After Yugoslavia surrendered to the Germans, my father decided we should move back to Subotica where he and my mother had started their life together and where "Barzel," the hardware store owned by my father's family, was. Life would be easier in a city where there were no German soldiers roaming the streets and life was still normal. Subotica bordered Hungary. Depending on the year, the war and the politics, Subotica had been part of Austro-Hungary and called Szabadka. After WWI it became part of Yugoslavia as Subotica. In 1941 Hitler ceded it to Hungary, and it became Szabadka again. Finally, after WWII, it became Subotica as part of Yugoslavia. It was the third largest city in Yugoslavia. The majority of the population is ethnic Hungarian and everybody in Subotica speaks both Serbo-Croatian and Hungarian even today, just as our family did.
What did the Jews of Hungary know? What did you or your family know about what was happening to the Jews in Europe?
I was three years old when Yugoslavia surrendered to the Germans. I don't know whether my parents knew from first-hand accounts what was happening in the camps. But they did read in the newspapers about mistreatment of the Jews. And I remember that I was forbidden to play outside.
Do you remember feeling antisemitism in Hungary?
I remember that one day, my mother, who was a very good seamstress, made several yellow cloth stars of David. Mine was sewn on my dark blue sweater. As we were living in Subotica, I was allowed, at the age of six, to walk and roam the streets by myself, like all the other children, as long as I stayed close to home. My mother asked me to go to the store and bring back a bottle of milk. It was not the first time I did this, which made me feel grown up. On my way back to the house, I saw two boys older and bigger than me, walking towards me on the other side of the street. As they noticed me, they started crossing the street. I sensed something was very wrong. It was. They started punching me and I dropped the bottle, which broke and spilled the milk on the sidewalk and on the street. My clothes were soiled and my nose was bleeding. I guess the star on my sweater was an invitation to be punched. I feared that my mother would reprimand me and spank me for breaking the bottle. I arrived home crying, empty-handed and I told her what happened. Instead of slapping me she hugged me and I didn’t understand why.
If your parents were aware of what was happening in Europe, why didn't they take any action?
My whole story is a story of procrastination, though I understand it. Yugoslavia surrendered to the Germans on April 18, 1941 and our lives changed forever. But wait. Why were we caught in Belgrade? We were not supposed to be there. We were supposed to be in Mexico, with new lives, in a free country, at peace. My parents had known that trouble was coming. Not only had they known, but they had planned for it from the time they were married in 1930. They knew that they could not live in Yugoslavia or Hungary all their lives. They didn’t know yet where they were going to move, but they decided to name their children with common names in any country. When I was one year old, in 1939, as the situation in Europe was heating up, my parents decided to travel around the world to choose the country where they would move. They sailed on the Queen Mary, when I was only one year old, from Cherbourg to New York City. From New York they made a short trip to Toronto to visit old friends. They traveled to New York and Mexico City by train. They fell in love with Mexico City. My parents decided to go back to Yugoslavia to sell the businesses, the house in Belgrade and the car and move to Mexico, far away from the threat of war and the Germans. On their way back to Yugoslavia they stopped in New York again where they were told by old friends not to go back. “Send for the children but don’t go back. The news we hear from Europe is not good.”
But my father was the younger brother in business with older ones. His voice, vote and decisions were trumped by the elders. They didn’t sell the businesses or the house or the car. Every Saturday, after synagogue services, they went with their friends to the Hotel Majestic, the best in Belgrade, to have Dobos Torta and Turkish coffee. They were part of a group of young couples with small children. The conversations were the same every week: “When are you leaving?” “Who left this week?” “Have you sold your business?” “Did you get your Cuban visa?” “Did you get your American visa?” The answers were similar every Saturday: “The Steins went to Venezuela where their cousins are,” “the Goldbergs went to New York,” “I haven’t got my Canadian visa,” “we haven’t yet sold our business,” “when are you leaving?” The only things that changed were the cakes. These conversations continued for the rest of 1939, all of 1940 and for the first 95 days and 7 hours of 1941. To make it more painful, I could say that this went on during September, October, November and December of 1939. And it went on during January, February, March, April to December of 1940 and it went on 80 Saturdays. “When are you leaving?”
Then, on April 6th , our world fell apart. The Germans bombed Belgrade and invaded Yugoslavia. Fifteen days later Yugoslavia had surrendered. After that, no business could be sold, at any price. No houses could be sold either and worst of all, no visas could be obtained anywhere.
In short, what happened to your family during World War II?
Like many Jews, my father was a patriot and enrolled in the army. He became an officer, until in 1940, to accommodate to German thinking, Hungary passed legislation to remove Jews from the officer corps of the Army. Instead of regular Army service a labor service under humiliating conditions was instituted for Jews, and he wound up in a labor brigade doing forced labor. My father was with the brigade until the end of ’42, when he was temporarily released. In 1943 he was taken again for three months of forced labor to the north of Hungary. In March of 1944 when Hitler’s troops occupied Hungary, my father was taken again, to Szeged, a small city 46 kilometers northeast of Subotica, where he was severely punished over and over, because he couldn’t work due to kidney disease. The punishments worsened his condition until he couldn’t walk. When the German army abandoned Szeged, they left him there in the hospital, where he remained until the end of 1944. When the Russians liberated Szeged, his buddies helped him get to the Subotica hospital, where he was released in February 1945, three months before the end of the war. He died on December 21, 1945 at the age of 42.
On May 2, 1944 my mother and we three children (as well as all the Jews of Subotica, about 3,500) were taken first to a makeshift ghetto in the city railroad station. Then on June 16, 1944, ironically 10 days after Operation Overlord, commonly known as D-Day, we were taken to a Ghetto in Bacsalmas, 45 kilometers away. We were ordered by the soldiers guarding the ghetto to board another cargo train. There were trains going west and trains going east. Years later my mother told me that her hunch saved our lives. She knew that the trains heading east were going to Auschwitz and people boarding them were going to be killed. And she knew that the trains going in the opposite direction were going someplace else where we were not going to be killed. She chose the cargo train heading in the other direction, and we headed to Strasshof, a distribution camp 456 kilometers away.
Finally we were taken to a Labor Camp in Ulrichskirchen, 25 kilometers from Vienna.
Seventy years later, how do you feel about Kasztner?
What do you mean?
Eichmann had successfully sent over three million Jews from Poland, to various extermination camps. Now he was in Budapest, commissioned to do the same with Hungarian Jews. He had already sent 380,000 to Auschwitz and was in the process of sending more.
When Blaschke, the mayor of Vienna, asked for Jewish laborers, Himmler gave orders to his lieutenant, General Kaltenbrunner, to instruct Eichmann to divert 30,000 workers to Vienna instead of Auschwitz. Eichmann was negotiating with Kasztner the transport of 1,500 prominent Jews to Switzerland, in return for “goods”. Kasztner told Eichmann that under no circumstance would the British or the Americans provide trucks or war material that could be used against their Russian allies. Forget it. Ask for something else! This deal became known as “Blood for Goods” or “Jews on Ice.”
After several arguments, the offer was to save the 30,000 Jews by sending them to Vienna, where they would be treated “humanely,” in return for 5,000 trucks, canned food, 5 tons of coffee, and 5 million Swiss Francs. Eichmann ordered that 30,000 Jews be sent to Vienna, for Blaschke’s use. The conditions agreed upon by Eichmann and Kasztner were that all kinds of people were going to be among the Jews on Ice. Children, women, the old and the sick. This had never happened before. Maybe the Germans wanted the world to see how humanely they treated the Jews. To the dismay of Vienna's Mayor Blaschske, only about half of them were capable of working. Now I had a chance to survive!
My mother was wrong. She was not our only savior (the Jews couldn't choose what train to go on from Bacsalmas; the Germans ordered us onto the trains). Our saviors were Eichmann and Kasztner. If Kasztner hadn't existed, maybe the Jews needed by the mayor of Vienna would have come from Rumania, or anywhere else. I owe my life to Kasztner. I have no way of proving it, but there is no one who can disprove it.
Why do you think that Kasztner is still such a controversial figure?
Kasztner had just learned about the systematic extermination of Jews in Auschwitz from a report written by two prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who had escaped Auschwitz on April 5, 1944. Before their report, it was rumors and conjectures, but no certainty of the existence of the gas chambers. They all thought that Auschwitz was a labor camp. Kasztner never disseminated the report fearing unrest and worse conditions for Jews in Budapest. He was going to pay dearly for this omission 11 years later, during a trial in Israel.
Could Kasztner have made a difference by telling the Jews of Hungary about what he knew?
The big question is, when did he learn about the camps? He didn't learn about Auschwitz until Vrba and Wetzler's report, which was written during the approximately three weeks from the date of their escape on April 5th. Copies of the report were released only in May. But the Hungarian Jews were being sent to ghettos by April.
I don't know what I would have done if I had been in his position. Kasztner spent months of his life to save people. Whether he disclosed what he knew or not is irrelevant.
He not only saved the Jews on the so-called "Kasztner Train" and the 19,000 Jews sent to Vienna, but he also protected many thousands in the Budapest Ghetto against the Hungarian Arrow Cross, who were worse antisemites than the Germans. Almost at the end of the war, he and Lt. Col. Kurt Becher went to several concentration camps to order them not to exterminate the remaining prisoners before the Russians and Americans arrived. Becher had a higher rank than the camp commandants. Some historians say that this action saved maybe 100,000 to 150,000 Jews from being exterminated.
The more I've learned about what happened in Israel after the Holocaust, the more I see that the feeling in Israel after the Holocaust was that if you survived, it's because you were a coward or you did something wrong. If Kasztner was accused of dealing with the enemy and deemed a traitor, then many prominent Jews, including some Prime Ministers of Israel, should be accused too, as they have all dealt with the enemy. I owe my life to Kasztner.