Helen Berkovitz

Berkovitz thumbnail

Born: Tasov, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), 1921

Wartime experience: ghettos and camps

Writing Partner: Ann Veprinska

Helen Berkovitz (née Lázárovits) was born in Tasov, Czechoslovakia, in 1921. She moved to the small town of Bácsalmás, Hungary, in 1942 to work in a store, where she met her husband, Paul Berkovitz.

Helen was living in Hungary when Germany invaded the country in March 1944, after which she was forced into the Bácsalmás ghetto. She was next sent to a German-run camp called Topolya, where she stayed for three weeks before being sent to the Szeged ghetto. Due to negotiations by Rudolf Kasztner and labour shortages in Austria, Helen was luckily put on a train to Strasshof, Austria, rather than being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau like the majority of Hungarian Jews. In Strasshof, Helen was reunited with her husband. After months of forced labour, Helen was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in December 1944, and then to the Theresienstadt camp in April 1945. Helen was liberated by the Soviet army on May 8, 1945. She arrived in Canada with her husband and their two children on February 25, 1957. In Toronto, Helen raised her family while working at a restaurant and then at the Scott Mission. Helen lives in Toronto, surrounded by family.

Staying Together

In March 1944, when Germany occupied Hungary, things became worse and my sister Cipora and I were afraid and wanted to go home to be with our parents. Unfortunately, the bridge leading home was closed and we had to remain in Bácsalmás. Then on April 24, 1944, we were placed in a ghetto in Bácsalmás. One day in the ghetto, in May 1944, somebody called out that everybody with a profession should pack a suitcase, because the next day we would be taken to work. My sister and I had professions, so the next day we were taken to a German camp called Topolya in Hungary (now a part of Serbia).

On June 6, 1944, everyone who was eighteen to forty-eight years old and not working in a labour camp in Hungary was told to register. However, there were so many people registering that there wasn’t enough room for everyone, so eighty people were let go, including my fiancé, Paul, who went home to his parents. From there, Paul was put in a ghetto. In the ghetto, similar to what happened to my sister and me, all the professionals were told to step forward, so my fiancé, who was a jeweller (he fixed watches), stepped forward. There were twelve hundred professionals who stepped forward, but they only took six people, including Paul, to a labour camp. He was told that he could bring his family with him, but he didn’t know where he was going and was afraid to bring his family, so he went by himself.

In Topolya, my sister and I didn’t do anything for three weeks and after three weeks we were taken to a ghetto in Szeged in southern Hungary. We arrived in Szeged on June 17, 1944, on a Saturday at one in the morning. On Monday, we were told to pack our suitcases so that we could be taken to work. We found out much later that we were supposed to be taken to Auschwitz by train, but that Rudolf Kasztner, one of the leaders of the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee, had made a deal with Adolf Eichmann, a senior SS officer, and due to a labour shortage in Austria, a number of train cars were sent back, including ours. Our train car was instead sent to Strasshof, a town twenty-five kilometres east of Vienna in Austria. We arrived in Strasshof on a Saturday, but the camp was so full that we weren’t allowed inside. There was a cemetery nearby and we slept there under the open sky.

On Monday, my sister went to get some water and there she met my fiancé, Paul. He had arrived on Friday. Like my sister and me, Paul had been put on a train headed to Auschwitz, but Paul’s train car happened to be sent to Strasshof as well. Paul was very happy when he saw my sister. However, before we could enter the camp from the cemetery, the people who were already in the camp had to be cleared out so that we could be disinfected. Paul hid and waited for us. At one point he was caught, but he was able to escape and hide again. It was worth it to wait for us.

When we were finally together, there was also a rabbi with us from Paul’s hometown, and I asked the rabbi to make a chuppah for us so that we could be married and stay together. The rabbi was very religious and said he could not do it because we needed to perform other religious ceremonies — for example, going to the mikveh, purifying bath. In my defence, my fiancé said that if the rabbi wouldn’t make the chuppah, we would still stay together. The rabbi was shocked by this and decided to marry us. Then four people took a tallis, a prayer shawl, somebody burned rings for us and the rabbi made the blessing and married us. So we stayed together from then onward.

Emigration

On October 23, 1956, there was a revolution in Hungary and the borders were opened once again. At the time, however, we were still in Baja, which was far from the capital, Budapest. We were always hearing on the radio about the numbers of people who were crossing the border. I told my husband that now was our opportunity to escape. My husband, however, said that he did not want to go anywhere. I told him that if he didn’t want to go, I would take the kids and leave by myself. I wouldn’t have done it — I just said that to scare him. This was on a Saturday night, and we were both angry and didn’t talk to each other. On Sunday, the helper I had in the house was off for the day, and I was washing dishes while my husband was drying them. He said to me that if I wanted to leave Hungary so badly, then we would go, but whatever happened to the children would be my responsibility. I told him that I would take this responsibility.

We didn’t have any connections to help us cross the border, but we decided to go to Budapest since my youngest sister was there. I left all of my valuables and even forgot to take the papers accepting us to the United States. (We had hidden these underground.) When we arrived in Budapest, I spoke to a friend who said that if we went to a village closer to the border, there was probably somebody there who had connections. After almost a week in this village, we found somebody. We wanted to take a little train that came closer to the border. Naturally, we weren’t dressed like we were just going to visit somebody; I had on a heavy coat lined with fur. If we were stopped and checked on the train, it would be obvious that we wanted to escape. On this train, I asked a woman to watch my two children, but before the train left, the woman brought my children back because there were two Russians checking the whole train. They caught us and we had to go back to Budapest.

On Friday night, the man who was helping us showed us the way to come closer to the border. I paid him two thousand forints, Hungarian currency, so that he would carry my daughter. But when I gave my daughter to him, she started to cry, so I carried her the whole way myself. We walked for at least ten kilometres. Then the man pointed to a light in the distance and said that that was Austria. He said that he could not go farther and would have to turn around so that he wouldn’t get caught for trying to help us escape. I was afraid that he had taken us to the wrong place, so I told the men to stay where we were while the women and children would go check to see if we were in Austria. We knocked on a window and the people inside answered us in Hungarian instead of German. I felt like I lost myself then. I sat down on a nearby rock and held my kids and cried. I thought we had been taken to the wrong place and would now be caught. I forgot that we had to go back for the men, but they soon came to us. When they asked why we hadn’t come back, I said that I didn’t have the energy to. But near where I was sitting there was a man cleaning after some horses and cows, and in German he told us that we were in the right place. I finally felt that we were free.

During the seven weeks that we stayed in Vienna, one of my girlfriends came to visit us. She showed me a letter from our mutual friends who had escaped Hungary in 1952 and were now in Toronto, Canada. These friends wrote about how great Canada was; it was a place where there were twenty-eight different kinds of bread. I told my husband that maybe we should immigrate to Canada. In the meantime, there were people who were trying to influence us and others to move to Israel. We were told that this would be easy; we would be allowed to bring a large amount of luggage and could be there in four days. My husband had a brother who had moved there in 1939, and I had my middle sister there. My youngest sister, brother-in-law and husband all wanted to move to Israel. I was the only one who was against it for three reasons. First, I knew it would be difficult in Israel with my husband’s profession, because there were a lot of jewellers. Second, my husband was a very picky eater, and I was concerned he would not like the food there. Third, I do not like the heat. So I told my husband that for these reasons Israel would be our last resort if nothing else worked out.

After my friend showed me the letter from Canada, we decided that instead of waiting for a response from the United States, we would go to Canada.

After registration at the Canadian consulate, we were sent to a camp in Znaim (now Znojmo, Czech Republic) where people wanting to immigrate to Canada were being interviewed. My husband was asked to disclose at what point he had been a communist, to which he responded, “Never,” which was the truth. We were in Znaim for a week and then we took a train to London. On the day we arrived in London, we were put on a ship to Halifax.

After six days of a difficult voyage, we arrived in Halifax. On the train in Halifax, there was an English-speaking man who really took to my little girl. When we were registering, he acted as our translator because we didn’t know any English. The person registering us wanted to send us to Vancouver, but I knew the friends who had written the letter were from Toronto, so I asked our translator to say that we wanted to go to Toronto. We didn’t understand exactly what the person at registration said, but it was something like, “You will be sorry for going to Toronto.” He sent us there anyway, and so we arrived in Toronto on February 25, 1957.

When we arrived in Toronto with my family and my sister and her husband, there was somebody waiting for everybody except for us. There was a camp for Hungarian immigrants on Queen Street East, and the leader of this camp heard that we had nobody in the city, so she came with a taxi and took us back with her to the camp. We spent five weeks in this camp.

On our second day in Toronto, I told my husband that we should explore the city. We sat on the TTC without knowing where we were going. We stopped by a jewellery store, and my husband went inside to ask if a jeweller was needed. There were no vacancies there. We kept going along Queen Street. The next jewellery store was large. Even though this store already had seven people working there, they needed one more jeweller. They hired my husband and paid him fifty dollars a week.

We wrote to our cousins in St. Louis, United States, telling them that we had arrived in Canada. Their return letter came with three hundred dollars in it. We thanked them and their next letter arrived with another hundred dollars. After five weeks at the jewellery store, my husband was let go because there wasn’t enough work. He had made two hundred and fifty dollars. With the money that our cousins sent us, we had six hundred and fifty dollars. We had again written the cousins thanking them, and they had again sent us another hundred dollars. We wrote to tell them that they shouldn’t send us any more money; we had everything we needed, which was the truth.

But I never want to make my family sad. I never tell them stories that will make them think that I am bitter. I tell them everything about my life, and they love to hear the stories, but it’s hard for them to believe that these things actually happened.

Epilogue

I try to cope the best I can and enjoy my life. After my husband died, I travelled a lot. I went to Miami every winter. I went to China. I have my son, George, and two wonderful granddaughters. Thank God I am blessed. Every Friday night, I have my family over for Shabbat. Sometimes we even fit six people around my little table. This gives me so much pleasure. My grandchildren listen to my advice and thank me for it. I don’t know if my opinions are so important to them, but they ask me about the decisions that they make.

My son calls me every day. The grandchildren call me often too. There isn’t a day when somebody — either my son or my granddaughters — doesn’t come to see me. When I lived on Meadowbrook Road, George would call me sometimes at 9:30 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. at night, saying that he was up north and wanted to drop by to see me. What was he doing up north at this late hour? He just didn’t want me to think that he was coming all the way from Rosedale to visit me for a short time. My children and grandchildren are a blessing — they always have time for me.

But I never want to make my family sad. I never tell them stories that will make them think that I am bitter. I tell them everything about my life, and they love to hear the stories, but it’s hard for them to believe that these things actually happened.

I am a big believer in God. If I weren’t a believer, I don’t think I would have made it. I always believed that miracles could happen. There is a saying that forty days before people are born, everything about their lives is already written: how long they will live, who their partner will be, how lucky they will be, how many children they will have. Everything that’s happened to me is like a miracle. When my husband and I found each other again in Strasshof, that was a miracle. That’s why I am a believer. That belief has pushed me through a lot of things in my life.