'I don't have the power of forgiveness in the name of 6m people'
THE HOLOCAUST, so often talked and written of, can remain an abstract concept until you meet someone who went through it. There are few survivors left, but, on a recent visit to Dublin, Yaakov Barzilai exuded vigour at the age of 79.
Now living in Israel, he was born in 1933 – “the most cursed year of the cruellest century, the year Hitler came to power” – in the Hungarian city of Debrecen, where, as Pal Eisner, he lived with his sister, Judith, his mother, Iren, and his father, Imre, a tailor.
Hungary was then living under the regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy. Although the central European state was one of the Axis powers in the second World War, doubts about its loyalty led Hitler to invade in March 1944.
The notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of exterminating its 800,000-strong Jewish community. The Jews in Barzilai’s home town were herded on to three trains, two bound for Auschwitz, the other for Vienna. Barzilai’s mother, whom he describes as a family angel, opted for the train to Austria, and the family got on board, along with Barzilai’s grandfather.
They avoided certain death in Auschwitz, but their circumstances were harrowing. “We were all squeezed into a cattle car, parents and children, the elderly and the sick,” he says, speaking through an interpreter. There was no water or fresh air, and the only toilet was a single bucket. “The stink that was in the air was indescribable.” When the train finally arrived in Vienna “all the living and the dead spilled out”.
The family were sent to work for a farmer, but Barzilai’s grandfather was elderly, his father very ill and his sister only four years old. “We were not productive enough, and we were declared parasites,” he says.
They were sent away after five months, in the same cattle train but this time bound for Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “There were about 120 people in the same cattle car, and it was in October. It was very, very cold. Some of the people died on the trip. There was no train station in Bergen-Belsen, so we had to walk 5km to the camp.”
His mother carried his father through the gates, as anyone who stopped to rest got shot. Within a few days his father died in the arms of Barzilai’s mother, from heart failure, a collapsed lung and high blood pressure, at the age of 42. “There was a shed [toilet] outside the block where we lived, and my father, who had severe diarrhoea, couldn’t walk, so my mother carried him back and forth from the shed to the block, and he died on the way.” His grandfather, Mihaly, died a week later.
Boys about Barzilai’s age would break into the food warehouse at the camp and steal provisions, mostly beetroot. When they were caught the children were hanged in front of the other inmates. When she saw the boys swinging from the gallows Barzilai’s little sister – now living in Israel – thought she was in a playground and got very upset when her mother refused to “take her to the swings”.