By Eugen Schoenfeld | One Man’s Opinion
Each year as we enter the month of May, I cannot help but remember the time of my liberation. Spring, in a sense, is also my personal Pesach, and like the traditional Passover, mine came with its own miracles. Let me share with you one such miracle that occurred in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
A few weeks after our liberation from the German camp Muhldorf and a subsequent stay in a quasi-hospital run by the American military, all of us survivors were declared by the physicians to be fit for repatriation — a euphemism for being sent back to our hometowns, which in my case was Munkacs, the city from which, with the assent of the Christian population, we were sent to Auschwitz.
Standing in line next barrels of old clothes donated by Americans, we were given a set of underwear, a jacket, slacks and shoes and declared to be ready for repatriation. Were we being repatriated? Were we being sent back to our patria, to the land of our forefathers? What happened to me gave me a clear indication that the town and the country where I was born considered me an undesired stranger who therefore could not and should not claim it to be my patria.
We were also each given an ID that attested in three languages that the bearer was a displaced person, and by agreement this served as our passport and free transportation. With a box lunch in our hands and directions to our former home, we embarked on a difficult journey — not necessarily to go to a nonexistent home, but at best to seek a chance for rebuilding a life somewhere.
With other survivors, my father and I embarked on the train for a long and difficult journey. What made the journey physically difficult, besides the anxiety of the future, were the bombed-out rails that forced us to make frequent detours. We began our trip in early morning, and by nightfall we arrived in Bratislava. Under normal circumstances the train ride should have taken only three hours, but the circuitous routes we had to take made the trip last almost 10 hours.
We left the train for an overnight stay in Bratislava.
Trucks ferried us from the station to an empty public school, where we were fed and given thin mattresses on the floor. Tired from the difficult journey, my father and I lay down, and in spite of our tiredness, neither of us could fall sleep. We were anxious to find out what had happened to our family.
Although we were the first transport to arrive at this waystation, we knew that other transports on their way to former homes would join us through the evening. My father and I, dressed in our donated clothes, settled down on the mattresses to rest and perchance to sleep. But no one slept. All of us were waiting for the transports to come, hoping to get news about our missing family members.
Early in the evening a new group of survivors arrived. All of us immediately jumped up from our mattresses, surrounded them and asked the usual questions: Do you know anything about so and so?
Do you know anything about Benjamin, Edit and Yolanda Schoenfeld?
Among those who ran to question the arrivals was a man whose name I cannot recall but who was interned with us in Muhldorf Wald Lager. Just as he arrived to the periphery of the new transport, he emitted a loud cry, for there among the new arrivals he saw his wife.
Needless to say, this reunion affected all of us; it maintained and reinforced in all of us the hope that we, like this man, could be reunited with a family member.
After this extraordinary event we returned to our mattresses, but hardly anyone slept. Each of us, at least my father and I, had wistfully chatted about the possibility that we would be reunited with some of our family members. Near midnight, a transport from a women’s camp arrived. Again, all of us, including the reunited couple, hastened to query the new arrivals about family members.
Suddenly, our questioning was interrupted by loud and hysterical shrieks emitted by the newly reunited couple. In the midst of a great tumult, they were hugging, kissing and crying two young women — their daughters.
There in the classroom in Bratislava I bore witness to an extremely rare event, so rare indeed that I must call it a miracle: the reunification of a total family.
What about the rest of us? Of course we were happy for them, but at the same time I was envious of them — and in my heart angry at God: “Dear God, why not us?”
Very few slept that night. I didn’t. I silently cried. I empathized with that family’s good fortune and dreamed and hoped that, like them, we too would have the good fortune and luck to be reunited with our families. Unfortunately, miracles by their very nature are extremely rare.