War After War

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26 Jun 2008
These children had just participated in a birthday party in the Galanta “ghetto.” Two weeks later they were all murdered by the Nazis in Birkenau

Shaindy Miller (nee Ehrenwald) never met three of her sisters. In 1918 in a village near Novozamsky, Hungary they were murdered by anti-Semites who played a drowning game to amuse themselves.

Shaindy Miller was born in 1930 in Galanta, Czechoslovakia. The town was on the Czech/Hungarian border and numbered about 5,000 inhabitants. There were approximately 1,200 Jews in the town. Although Galanta was small in population, it was spread out over a large area. It took about half an hour to reach Bratislava, the capital. Today the area is known as Slovakia.

The Buxbaum Yeshiva with more than 400 yeshiva students was located in Galanta. Students came from places as far away as Berlin and Budapest to attend the yeshiva. During WWII a large sum of money was offered to save the life of Rav Buxbaum, but he declined the offer and chose to be with his students. He went into the gas chamber wearing his tefillin. There is a Galanta yeshiva in his memory in both Beit Yisrael, Jerusalem and in Boro Park.

The Ehrenwald family owned a row of stores and homes on the main street of Galanta. In 1938 Hungary invaded the area in which the Ehrenwalds lived. By this time the family numbered eleven.

Shaindy attended a co-ed Jewish school from first through fourth grades. In the afternoon she studied in a Beit Yaakov program. From fifth to eighth grade she studied at an all girls’ school, and attended Beit Yaakov in the afternoon. She had a good friend who was a non-Jew. It was only later on in life that she learned that her friend’s parents were rabid anti-Semites.

In 1942 the Hungarian army took all the able-bodied men to either the front or to labor camps. The March 1944 German invasion put an end to her formal schooling. In 1944 the Germans took three of her six brothers. Her father, who was in his early fifties, was considered too old to aid the German war effort.

When the Germans gave the order for the Jews to get ready to leave their homes, the families had less than a day to prepare. Mrs. Miller remembers how they cooked and baked so that they would have provisions for the way. They had no idea where they would be going.

They were taken to a farm in the outskirts of Galanta and lived in the “ghetto” for about two weeks. Then they were sent back to Galanta, but the Ehrenwalds were not allowed to return to their property on the main street. They moved into Shaindy’s aunt’s one and a half-room apartment for about one month. After that they had to move back to the “ghetto.”

A few weeks later they were transported by cattle car to a bigger town of about 10,000 inhabitants. They stayed in a factory for about three weeks. “I was embarrassed to bring our pot to the person who was giving out food,” Mrs. Miller recounts.

They were then sent to Birkenau where they were told to strip. Shaindy held onto the diary which she had started keeping when the Germans invaded Galanta. At one point she had to throw it down and she threw it into a corner. It lay there in the rain for three days. She dried it out, but words had faded and some pages had torn.

Except for her brother Yechezkel who was sent to Dachau, and her sister Yitty who was with her, all her family members were murdered. After three months in Birkenau she and her sister were sent to a labor camp called Obershlezia located between Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. For nine months she worked in an ammunitions factory and her job was to measure and record the size of the material placed into the bullets. She used the opportunity to reconstruct her diary from memory and to continue writing new accounts. When she was questioned by her fellow workers, she said that she was writing down information for work. She was even able to take her diary to where she slept since it was inside the small folder that she had been given for work.

The stores owned by the Millers in Galanta accompanied by a photo of the same area as it currently looks.

After the war about 100 survivors— including Shaindy, her sister Yitty and her brother Yechezkel—returned to Galanta. The Joint Distribution Committee gave them housing, food and clothing. Yitty got married and Shaindy lived with the new couple. Also living in their home was Michoel Miller, Yitty’s brother-in-law.

Michoel opened a grocery store in Galanta and Yechezkel worked as an electrician. That year forty couples out of the 100 survivors got married.

Shaindy Ehrenwald married Michoel Miller in 1947. She was seventeen. According to Hungarian law you had to be at least eighteen to get married. A bribe was given to a government official and the marriage was officially recorded.

Four Israeli aliyah emissaries visited Galanta in 1949. A few months later, before the upcoming election in which it was known that the communists would win, both Miller families made aliyah by boat. They were not allowed to take money with them, and so they used their money to buy different items. These items were later sold in Israel, so they would have what to live off of until they found work.

Mrs. Miller had an aunt and uncle in Israel who had made aliyah in 1936. Mrs. Miller remembers this aunt’s father cry, “Don’t go to Israel.”

They moved to 22 Blau Street. It was the only apartment building in the neighborhood that was known as Pagi, an acronym for Poalai Agudat Yisrael. (The official name is Sanhedria.) Their building had been built by a rich American Jew who wanted to help Jews out following the 1929 riots. The only structure nearby was a small synagogue. Jordanian soldiers on the border near the Old City were their “neighbors.”

Michoel eventually received work in the “prozdor” (corridor) near Beit Shemesh. He opened up a grocery store in an area with many Yemenite Jews. He came home twice a week during the summer, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and once a week during the winter. He was transported by tank.

During the 1956 Sinai Campaign some soldiers discovered that the Millers were living in their apartment with their son Yitzchak and newborn son Aryeh. They told them that they couldn’t stay there. Since there was no nearby shelter the soldiers suggested that they live in the hallway of their home, which had no exterior walls or windows. Thank G-d, the shelling of Jerusalem that had been feared, did not materialize.

The two families lived in the small apartment until 1962 when there were already five children. Yitty and her family then moved to Nevi’im Street.

The yard in which her children used to play under the watchful eye of Jordanian soldiers

Before 1967 Mrs. Miller would worry when her children went out to play or went out to B’nai Akiva. She prayed that they would return safely. Following the miraculous Six Day War they visited Ammunition Hill in Ramat Eshkol, upon which a fierce battle between Jordanians in bunkers and Israelis had taken place. She looked down at her apartment house in Sanhedria and saw what the Jordanians had seen from 1948-1967—a bird’s eye view of much of Jerusalem.

When the Six Day War broke out she was at home alone with Aryeh and their daughter Dori. Her husband was at work in a grocery store in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. Yitzchok was at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva High School. Her brother Yechezkel drove over to pick her and the children up and bring them to their sister Yitty on Nevi’im Street. Suddenly shells fell and some landed on the car. They got out and ran to the nearest shelter. For two days they were there, along with other Israelis. The only food she had brought was small apples. She did not know the whereabouts of her husband and was very worried about him and about their son Yitzchak. At one point some Israeli soldiers came in to rest from the battle. They had not known that people had taken refuge there.

The unity felt in that shelter was very strong. Everyone helped everyone else. When they were allowed to leave the bomb shelter they went home. They later found out that the room in which Mrs. Miller and her two children would have been in had been destroyed by a shell!

When she related this story about living in Jerusalem to her granddaughter Shani, Shani exclaimed, “Savta (grandma), you were a mitnachelet (settler)!” Mrs. Miller affirms the label. For nineteen years they lived in a forsaken area with rocks for neighbors and the Jordanian soldiers watching them.

The next war, The Lebanon War of 1973, changed their lives forever. One day there was a knock on the door and standing at the door were army personnel. They told the Millers that their twenty year-old son Yitzchak had been killed. He and another soldier had been on the top of an armored troop vehicle and the driver had not seen a large hole in the terrain. The vehicle fell into the hole; Yitzchak and the other soldier were killed.

During the week of shiva, Rabbi Schlesinger, Yitzchak’s rav from Yeshivat Sha’albim told the family that each week he would visit his students when they were in the army. When he visited Yitzchak, which turned out to be the rav’s last visit, Rabbi Schlesinger said that he looked forward to Yitzchak returning to yeshiva the following week so they could learn together in the evenings. Yitzchak responded, “If I return.” The next day Yitzchak was killed. The parents requested that he be buried on Har Ha’Zeitim (The Mount of Olives) and they wanted to be buried next to him when they passed on. Instead the area was made into a military cemetery and so the Millers could not be buried next to their son. They purchased plots in the vicinity of Yitzchak’s grave.

The tragedy of losing a child was now added to the tragedy of having lost almost their entire family in the Holocaust. Mr. Miller chose not to speak about Yitzchak, but his wife did speak about him and continues to do so. During shiva week and on the first yahrzeit, many of Yitzchak’s friends came. After that the family requested that only relatives come.

The Millers didn’t talk about the Holocaust with their children. When their now 24 year-old grandson Natanel was five years old, he asked his grandmother to tell him stories about her family. She told him about her brother and sister. Natanel continued to ask questions and so finally she told him that her parents, her other siblings, her grandparents and other close relatives had been murdered. Upon hearing this he exclaimed, “But Savta, I hear you laugh sometimes. If that had happened to my family I would never laugh.” Natanel, by the way, was born on the 23rd of Sivan, the same day that her family was murdered in Birkenau.

When Mrs. Miller is with her friends they talk about all sorts of topics, but in the end they always talk about their experiences during the Holocaust. “It’s like yetziat mitzrayim (leaving Egypt). It’s a story to be told and re-told,” Mrs. Miller explained.

When asked if she can sleep at night she said, “I don’t think about those things. I think about my children and grandchildren. I also have faith in Hashem. Without faith one can’t live with all that has happened.”

In 1988 and in 1989 Mrs. Miller was the “living witness” who accompanied high school seniors, from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Neve Shemuel Yeshiva High School in Efrat, on their trip to Eastern Europe.

Once, when she corrected one of her granddaughters regarding what she had said about Eastern Europe, her granddaughter asked her, “Savta, how did you know that? Did you also study for bagruyot (matriculation exams)?” Mrs. Miller responded, “No, I didn’t study. I lived history.”

Her husband Michoel passed away 2 1/2 years ago on erev Rosh Hashana at the age of 84. There was no shiva week since Rosh Hashana pushes shiva aside. Despite the fact that sitting shiva is a draining experience, Mrs. Miller felt that she needed that healing process.

Michoel never told his wife how he had escaped from the Nazis. He told his daughter-in-law Chaya Miller who told her mother-in-law. One night when he and other Jews were marching with the Nazis guarding them, he sat down as if to tie his shoelace. Due to the darkness the Nazis didn’t notice that he had not re-joined them. Michoel used the opportunity to run away. He saw a light in the distance and walked towards it. He knocked on the farmer’s door. When the farmer opened the door he said, “You’re a Jew?” Michoel did not deny it. The farmer hid him for four weeks in the haystack in the barn and brought him food.

When the Russians conquered the area in November 1944, Michoel was a free man. He traveled to Budapest and there he was joined by some other Jewish young men. Seeing that there was no yeast in the city with which to bake bread, they traveled to another town to buy yeast. They began a business of selling yeast, and in this way sustained themselves until it was safe to return home.

Each year Mrs. Miller has been organizing a remembrance day on the 23rd of the Hebrew month of Sivan in memory of the Jews from Galanta and the vicinity who were murdered by the Nazis. She is still recuperating from when she fell and broke her shoulder eight months ago, and so she would rather that someone else organize it, but the survivors depend upon her. At 78 she is considered young.

This year marks the 64th yahrzeit. The event takes place on Mount Zion at the Chamber of the Holocaust, a little-known small museum. Mishnayot are learned in the memory of the victims and then afternoon prayers are said. Last year ten survivors came and they were joined by about ninety family members. There are more survivors from Galanta, but due to health reasons they cannot attend. This year the event took place on Thursday, June 26 at 4:00 PM.

Mrs. Miller holding a page from her original diary written in Hungarian

Mrs. Miller translated her diary from Hungarian into Hebrew. Some family members are editing it, and G-d willing, her story will reach many people. When the Gestapo came to Galanta she wrote:

Each day they come and beat the Jews. They rob the Jews. I see their [the Jews] swollen faces.

When they were taken from Galanta to a factory Shaindy wrote in her diary:

What do my parents think about the Germans taking us from place to place? Are they worried?

In a later entry she wrote:

I can hear the trains arriving. Mother and father thought that I was sleeping, but I couldn’t sleep. I heard them talking. Mother and father spoke about our future. They are worried about us. What will happen to all of us?

With the number of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust dwindling and the prospect of no more survivors within the next decade or so, having written testimony is of vital importance. The world must remember.

Stirring up such painful and traumatic memories is extremely difficult. Mrs. Miller and others who wrote about their experiences during such a dark time in history have great inner strength. May Hashem grant her and all Holocaust survivors the energy and the strength to live the remainder of their lives in dignity and with the knowledge that Am Yisrael Chai, The Nation of Israel lives.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.