Menachem Berkowitz: Counsellor at the Religious Youth Village in Deszk

Menachem Berkowitz and the Bleier twins at the youth village in Deszk. Courtesy of the Testimony House Nir Galim

Gershon-Baruch and Miriam Berkowitz lived in the village of Vizsoly in north-eastern Hungary, where some fifty Jews resided in the interwar period. The Berkowitzs led an orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Gershon owned a factory for carbonated drinks and also voluntarily ran the small local synagogue, which was used by Jews in neighboring villages too. Gershon and Miriam had six children – Shimon, Jenő (Jona-Zvi), Henrik (Chaim)-Reuven, Rosi-Rachel, Blanka-Bracha and Menachem-Emil (b. 1926). Shimon married Chana Reiner, and they had four boys.

In 1941-2, Gershon and Miriam's three eldest boys were recruited to the Hungarian Army's forced labor battalions.  They were sent to Ukraine, and all contact with them was severed.  A single, censored postcard arrived from Jenő in 1942, in which he wrote to his father: "Send regards to Uncle Tehillim (psalms)", alluding to his difficult circumstances.  Gershon gathered all the village Jews in the synagogue to say psalms for his son's wellbeing.

In March 1944, Hungary was occupied by the Germans, and straight after Passover, Hungarian gendarmes ordered the Jews of Viszoly to gather together and to equip themselves with food for three days.  Along with the Jews in the surrounding areas, they were taken to Kassa (Košice), where they were incarcerated in the brick factory there.  Among those imprisoned were Gerson and Miriam Berkowitz, their daughters Rosi and Blanka, their son Menachem, their daughter-in-law Chana and their four grandchildren.  The conditions at the factory were deplorable: extreme overcrowding, lack of sanitation facilities and scant food rations.  After some three weeks, the inmates were deported on cattle cars to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a journey that took three days.  Gershon, Miriam, Chana and her four children were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival.  Rosi, Blanka and Menachem passed the selection.  Menachem was sent to work in a farm in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Budi, and managed to see his sisters Rosi and Blanka one more time.

In January, the inmates at Budi were forced on a death march from Auschwitz. Menachem reached Mauthausen, and then Ebensee, where he was liberated by the Americans on 5 May 1945 – his 19th birthday. After liberation, he was informed that his sisters Rosi and Blanka had been shot after the camp was evacuated. After a period of recuperation, Menachem returned home to Vizsoly in the hope that Shimon, Jenő and Chaim would come back from the Eastern Front, but none of them returned. Menachem was left entirely alone. In the house, he found a few photographs that his mother had hidden before they had been taken to Kassa. After a few weeks in the village, Menachem moved to Budapest and joined Bnei Akiva. He took a counsellors' course and was sent to take care of children at the youth village in Deszk in Southern Hungary.

He recalls:

There were over 200 children, counsellors and teaching staff. We conversed only in Hebrew, and I was the chief counsellor there. I gave talks, went on hikes with the children, I looked after them and made them happy. … We really rehabilitated ourselves emotionally. We didn't dwell on the Holocaust we had endured, but instead we started to live a new life, among lots of youngsters and children. … And the bonfires we held, where we sang beautiful songs, were really something. It was a very special time.

In 1950, after approximately three years working as a teacher and counsellor in Deszk, Menachem immigrated to Israel. He married Penina Reiner, and together, they were among the founders of Moshav Nir Galim.