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Elizabeth Herz Schwartz

(As told by her daughter-in-law, Melanie Roher)

I learned much of this story when I interviewed my mother-in-law on videotape in the 1990’s. Other parts were told to me in bits and pieces over the years, as they occurred to her. All are how she, and I remember them.

My mother-in-law, Erzsebet Shaller-Eizner, was born in 1911 in the tiny village of Mandok, in the northeast corner of Hungary near what is now the Ukraine. She was the second oldest of five children – Jolan, Miklos, Gizi and Cati. Eliz, as she was known to me, went to school until the eighth grade, when laws were passed preventing Jews from attending public schools. She had to take care of the younger children, and also her grandmother, even emptying her overnight bed pan. I think she resented having to be a caretaker, but it may have served her well later on.  

In about 1930, her father passed away and the family moved to Budapest. Eliz had cousins there and developed a vibrant social life. She had boyfriends, but when she met Istvan Herz they fell in love and married. Istvan, or Pista as he was called, had attended university in Prague and Germany, graduating in 1925. He worked as a chemical engineer in Budapest until he was drafted into the army. It seems that his family was upper middle class, a city family, and Pista’s mother had been a concert pianist. There are many photos of Eliz and Pista with friends and cousins, and at outings on the Danube and in the countryside. The Herz family seemed to have had a good life in Budapest.  

 (Photo Left:  Elizabeth in Budapest c. 1940)                                                                         (Photo Right:  Eliz and Istvan Herz, Budapest, c. 1940)     

The War Comes to Budapest

In March of 1944, when Eliz was 33 years old, Germany invaded Hungary. The Jews of Budapest, already restricted by Hungarian anti-Semitic laws, were moved from their homes to ghetto areas and internment camps around Budapest. Pista had been a high-ranking officer in the Hungarian Army, but when anti-Semitic sentiment began, he was demoted to a labor camp, with occasional leave to visit home. He was at home when the Nazis invaded Budapest, and ordered to return at once. 

After Pista left, Eliz was moved to a “Yellow Star” house. She left her apartment in Kispest, a suburb of Budapest, leaving behind her all her possessions. She was given a tiny room in a one-family house. Four other families also lived there.

One night, soldiers locked the door, preventing anyone from leaving. A woman and three Hungarian policemen came in to search for valuables. They body-searched everyone. A friend of Eliz’s had jewelry sewn into her shoulder pad. When the police discovered this, they took the jewelry and then savagely beat her. To avoid her friend’s fate, Eliz said she had to go to the bathroom very badly. To her surprise, they allowed her to go. In the bathroom, she ripped out the rings that she had sewn into her hem, and flushed them down the toilet. 

After a few weeks, Eliz was taken to a brick factory in Monor, a town close to Budapest. Hundreds of people were gathered there, sleeping on the ground without any living accommodations. The next day her father-in-law, Jeno Herz, was brought in. He had had a stroke, and Eliz was concerned, having seen the treatment the sick were given: “They took their arms and legs and threw them on a truck.” She had friends there who were doctors, and they made a Red Cross headband for her so she could pose as a nurse to care for her father-in-law. One of Jeno’s friends was also a doctor, and Eliz begged him to help Jeno die. He said he had brought something for himself, and if he gave it to Jeno, then what would he do? In the end, he relented to Eliz, and gave Jeno the injection. 

A Hungarian Army officer ordered Eliz to take Jeno’s body to the cemetery and dig a grave with another man to help. There was no casket, but the Hungarian police provided shovels. When she returned from the cemetery she could have escaped, but had nowhere to go. At the entrance to the Monor camp, a policeman greeted her saying, “Don’t go back in there. I’ll take you away from here.” Eliz replied, “If I have to select between two bad things, I’d rather go back in.” He said, “I wouldn’t do anything to you. I have a bride myself. I just thought you were too pretty a girl to get killed.” Eliz answered, “I don’t think they’ll kill me.” He responded, “Don’t worry, they will kill you.”

Arriving at Auschwitz

Eliz was in Monor about five days when she was forced to march with other captives several miles to the train station. There, cattle cars were waiting, and the Jews were loaded into them, packed so tightly they could hardly move. There were no windows, and no lavatory. As Eliz put it, “If you had to go, you just went.” The train began to move slowly towards the unknown.

During the trip, a woman gave birth, and, in spite of having very little room, a doctor in the car helped her. When the train made a stop, the doors were opened, and the doctor jumped down and asked for water, explaining that a woman had given birth. The guard hit him so hard that he nearly fell under the train. Desperate to help, Eliz put on her Red Cross headband and climbed down from the train. She announced to the guard that she was a nurse and demanded that he give her water. Amazingly, he let her carry a pail of water back to the car. 

After a few days of travel without food and water, the train arrived at Auschwitz. Many had died along the way, fallen to the floor where they had stood. The doors were thrown open, light poured in, and a barrage of German commands were hurled at the uncomprehending Hungarians to get down, move, get in line. Eliz tried to help the woman who had given birth, holding her baby for her so the woman could get herself down. A prisoner in a striped uniform grabbed the baby from her and gave it to an older woman. Eliz screamed at him that this was not her baby, and give it back. The woman who had given birth started hitting Eliz, yelling “Don’t give my baby away, that’s my baby!” The man in the striped uniform grabbed Eliz and shoved her to the side, commanding her to stand there and not to tell them your true age. 

They were lined up and sorted. As each person stepped forward, an SS officer pointed left or right, sorting the Jews into two sides. When asked her age, Eliz told him she was several years younger. The old woman who was given the baby was taken to one side, and Eliz and the bereft new mother were sent to the other side. 

It was cold, it was freezing. Eliz was lined up with the women and marched to a barracks. There, everything was taken from them, including their clothes. Eliz had a little prayer book that had her husband’s and mother-in-law’s pictures in it. She begged the man taking things to be allowed to keep it. He grabbed it from her, slapped her hard in the face, and ordered her to the next stop in processing. 

After a number was tattooed on her forearm, her hair was shaved off. Next, a ragged piece of clothing was thrown to her. No regard was made to match size. Eliz was lucky to get a man’s long coat. As she said, “They didn’t give us toilet paper, and I had a lining in the coat, so I kept tearing it for toilet paper.” That coat saved her life, as there was no water for washing, so she tried to keep clean using the lining pieces to wash herself whenever it rained. 

As Eliz and the group walked to their assigned barracks, they passed many large fires. There was a terrible stench from the fires, and Eliz asked, “What is this smell, it’s so horrible.” The SS guard replied, “Oh, they’re just burning garbage.” All of a sudden one woman said, “There is a hand!” Another woman said, “There is a foot!” They looked closer, and were stunned to realize that these were piles of human bodies laid upon wood, burning. 

Fast forward to 1973, when my husband Steve and I were visiting Eliz at her weekend house in New Jersey. I had been living in Manhattan, and when I smelled barbecue, I remarked how great it smelled, and relished the thought of grilling dinner that night. Eliz quickly came back with her take on the smell, saying, “To me, it doesn’t smell good at all.” I made the mistake of asking why. I never forgot that line. I had no defenses for this way of thinking.

Stories from Auschwitz

Szuzi was a Slovak woman forced to keep their barracks in order. If she didn’t, the SS would kill her. One day she gave Eliz a large stick, and said, “You are to patrol the barbed wire fence, and watch everything. If somebody gets too close to the wire, you must beat them in the head. If you don’t, the SS will use this stick to beat you in the head.” Having no choice, Eliz patrolled the camp, watching everything. She was constantly yelling, “Go away from the wire! Because of this job, she was witness to much more than most.

There were three barracks, (or lagers as she called them), A, B, and C in her patrol area. One day, she saw the Czechoslovakian residents of C lager being loaded onto trucks to be taken to the gas chambers. Sensing their fate, the Czechs sang their national anthem loudly as they were driven away. The newly arrived Hungarians were then moved into C lager in their place. To quote Eliz, “They get rid of one group to make room for the next.”

While on patrol, Eliz saw a man from A lager talking through the fence to his wife. A German guard with a big dog also saw them, and immediately unleashed his dog on them. The woman was torn apart by the dog in front of her husband. This became one of Eliz’s many recurring nightmares.

At the back of the camp, was an old building where coal and wood was stored. As she neared it one day, Eliz heard a baby crying. She thought she was imagining it, and followed the sound. When she peered in, there was, to her horror, a newborn infant crying loudly. Eliz knew someone had given birth in secret, and had taken the child and placed it there, out of sight. If the SS found the woman with the baby, she would be sent to the gas chamber. Eliz heard that infant wailing for three days, the cries becoming weaker and weaker, until there was silence. When my son was born in 1981, Eliz told me this story when he cried. She must have had the same memory with her own child, or maybe these memories had to be pushed beyond recall in order to survive and move forward with her life. Only later, when she was safe and secure, could these thoughts surface.

One day everyone from Barracks C was ordered to return to it and not leave. This included Eliz. By the time she got to back to her bunk, there were no seats. She saw one spot on the top level, and asked the women below to move a bit so she could climb up. No one moved. They were afraid that she would steal their seat. Eliz, in her usual forceful manner, stepped up, and onto one of the women. They started to fight, and soon there were six women entangled, fighting over that one little seat. Exhausted, they fell down and into each other’s arms, crying. They were now a family: Anush, Zelma, Ilus, and Daisy. This bond of friendship lasted through the end of the war and beyond. They slept all in one bunk, and took care of each other, sharing whatever they were able to get, and supporting each other through everything. In this way, they were able to survive. 

A benefit of Eliz’s patrols was that she was able to have contact with others who worked at different camp jobs. They’d ask her to look for their mother or sister or other loved one, since she had the ability to move about the camp. She’d find a mother, a husband, a daughter, and make connections for people. Often, the kitchen workers would steal one or two potatoes, and give them to Eliz saying, “Give this to my mother, and I’ll give you one.” If Eliz got one raw potato, she would slice it for the six of them, her “family.” If you didn’t share, you’d die. Every little crumb was so important.

War’s End

In January, 1945, the women in C Barracks were taken by cattle car to Flosenberg, a labor camp near the Czech border. She was put to work riveting metal for fighter planes. I learned this when she told me, “There is no such thing that you don’t know how to do something! I didn’t know how to work on aeroplanes. They told you to do it. You did it.” 

She also did hard, physical labor, cleaning rock and rubble from homes that had been bombed. The six friends were at least able to work together. At one location they found a garden, where they saw a few frozen tomatoes on the vine. They ran to it and were going to share it. But a German guard saw them and ordered them to put it down. He then peed on the tomatoes, and said, “Now you eat it.” And they ate it, so desperate were they for any nourishment. 

After a short time at Flosenberg, Eliz and her group were taken to Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia. By this time, she was very weak and thin, and could barely walk. She said, “if I didn’t have my friends to hold me up, I would not have made it.” 

In Theresienstadt Eliz became very sick with typhus, which was an epidemic in the camp as lice were everywhere. She stayed in the barracks knowing the hospital was the sure route to death. Her friend Anush’s husband was a doctor at Theresienstadt, working in the hospital there. In the evenings, he brought medicine. 

One day, an announcement was made that they had been liberated. Everyone ran out of the barracks to celebrate. Eliz was too sick and weak to join them, and watched from a window. People were singing their national anthems and dancing. As she watched, suddenly gunfire rang out and people began falling. About fifty people were killed in that moment. The announcement had been a pretense to get rid of more Jews at the last minute. They knew the Russians were near. 

The day after the massacre, the Red Cross did come from Switzerland. It was May 2nd, 1945 when they took over the camp. The SS fled. On May 8, Red Army troops liberated the camp, and on May 11, Soviet medical units arrived. Theresienstadt was the only Nazi ghetto to be liberated with a significant population of survivors. 

A Russian doctor carried Eliz in his arms to the hospital, and they began treating her typhoid fever, scurvy and malnutrition. When she was finally released, she walked through a large room, and in the distance, she saw someone walking towards her. That person had a “horrible face, sunken eyes, a gash for a mouth, a tongue hanging out, and no hair.” It was a terrifying sight! Who was that? As Eliz walked, the ugly figure walked closer as well, until she realized there was a mirror at the end of the room, and that she was looking at herself. She had not seen herself since arriving at the camps, she had no idea what she looked like. It was a shock.

While Eliz was recovering, she learned that the Soviet Army was continuing on to Hungary. She got paper and pencil, wrote a note with her name, “If anybody can find Istvan Herz, tell him that I’m alive and in Theresienstadt.” She gave the note to a soldier to post when he got to Budapest. 

When she felt strong enough, Eliz, along with a few women from the camp, started walking home. As they walked through the Czech countryside, they dug and ate raw potatoes to sustain themselves. Eventually, they boarded a train full of Russian soldiers headed to Budapest. In Budapest, she found her youngest sister, Gizi, who had been in hiding, cousins and friends who had survived, but most importantly she learned that her beloved husband Pista had returned a month before and had been waiting for news of her. She also learned that he had seen her note posted at the newspaper office, and had gone to Terezin to look for her.

While she waited for Pista’s return, Eliz began picking up the pieces of her former life. She located several household items that had been stolen by neighbors. She settled into the apartment that Pista had found. One day, as she told me, she looked out the window and there was her Pista walking down the street to their apartment. They had found each other. And they thought the whole world was now theirs. They were alive! They were alive!

Life after the War, and America

Eliz and Pista managed to get a small apartment in Kispest. Eliz became pregnant, but three months later Pista developed a high fever. She took Pista to a hospital in Budapest but they had no medicine. Eliz befriended a police officer who said he could get penicillin for her if she could come to his office in the morning. Eliz left Pista, and walked the four miles home to Kispest. At 5:00 am she was in the Police Station, but the officer had been unable to get the penicillin. Exhausted and anxious, Eliz walked back to the hospital. When she arrived, her sister Gizi was there and told her that Pista had died in the night. Eliz collapsed in tears, and never really recovered. The fact that she hadn’t been at his side when he died, after surviving all that they had endured, was more than she could bear. “A beautiful, beautiful man,” she said. “36 years old.”

Eliz spent the rest of her pregnancy in a sanitorium in a severe depression. Stephen, my husband, was born in May, 1946, and named Istvan (which is Stephen in English) after his father.

As a single mother without money in post-war Budapest, life was difficult for Eliz. Her sister Cati, who had gone to New York in 1939, couldn’t bring her to America since she herself was not legal having overstayed her visa. But she did send Eliz packages of nylon stockings and other items constantly. From the money she made selling stockings, Eliz was able to buy food and pay rent. It allowed her to survive. Cati had a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, and sent beautiful baby clothes. When Stephen outgrew them, Eliz sold them for an entire year’s supply of firewood to heat the apartment. They had very little, but apparently were very well-dressed!
(Photo Left:  Eliz and Stephen in Budapest, Spring 1948)

When I was diapering my infant son, and Eliz was visiting, she remarked how easy I had it with Pampers, and that she had to break pieces of fence to make a fire, to heat the water, to boil the diapers for her baby. These painful memories came back to her many times when she was with me.

Eliz had a friend, Peter Gaston, whose brother Paul had gone to America in the 1930’s and joined the U.S. Army. When the war ended, Paul was sent to Budapest with the Allied Forces since he spoke Hungarian. Eliz met him when he was visiting his brother, and asked him if he could help her get to America. Paul did help, and, to qualify for the visa, stated that he wanted to marry her. (They did not actually intend to marry.) Eliz’s sister in New York, Cati, scraped together the funds for Paul, and he got the visas and adoption papers for Stephen.

To afford the ship ticket to America, Eliz sold her apartment contents, which was illegal, and she was reported to the police. She was ordered to appear in court, so to avoid arrest, she had a friend exchange her ship passage for a flight from Prague to Amsterdam, and then to New York. She immediately left Budapest for Prague by train.

In Prague, she left her luggage at the station, and went to the airline office to get on an earlier flight, since she was a day ahead of her actual ticket. She didn’t speak Czech, so she asked in a loud voice, “Does anyone speak Hungarian?” The manager came out of his office answering in Hungarian, “What can I do for you?” This man turned out to be her husband, Pista’s, college roommate, an amazing coincidence! He sent someone to pick up her luggage, and got her on a flight to Amsterdam that day. 

In early December, 1948, Eliz and Stephen arrived in New York where the snow was piled high. She stayed with her aunt Gyongi and husband Paul in their tiny Brooklyn apartment. Not having children of her own, Gyongi was not very tolerant of a toddler. She invited Alex Schwartz, a Hungarian friend, to meet Eliz and two-and-a-half-year-old Stephen. He was a bachelor, fifteen years her senior, but he offered to marry Eliz and adopt Stephen. She accepted. They were married on December 31, 1948, about ten days after she had arrived. 

Eliz’s will to survive and her indominable spirit was evident throughout her life. She became a successful businesswoman, opening a women’s sportswear store, “The Specialty Shop,” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Once, when shoplifters stole from her store, she ran after them down Broadway, tackled them to the ground, and sat on them until the police came. After all she went through, she made sure that no one was going to take advantage of her!

Elizabeth died at the age of 96. Stephen and I have two grown children, Jonah and Karoline. And yet, through all of her successes in her later life, the trauma of the war never left her. In her delirium towards the end, the Nazis were coming at any moment. 
(Photo Left: Eliz and son Steve Schwartz at Woodlands in 2001 when granddaughter, Karoline, became a Bat Mitzvah) 

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyar 5784