Eugene Black. Auschwitz Birkenau survivor and slave labourer.
Conversation between Pierre Brackman and Eugene Black
BEFORE THE CAMP
Q1. Where did you live before the War? What were the harbingers of things to come, if there were any? For instance, had you already been the direct victims of anti-Semitism before? It has sometimes been said that Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism but pushed it to its most horrendous consequences: would you agree with that?
I lived in a place called Munkacs. When I was born in 1928 it was in Czechoslovakia, then it became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so when I was deported it was considered to be Hungary. After the war it became part of the Ukraine! I was only 16 when the Germans invaded Hungary on March 19 1944. I went to a Hungarian school and there were a few Jewish kids there but you see Munkacs was a very mixed community so I wasn't really aware of what was going on. I played in the school football team and we were, just well, all together, it didn't matter what or who you were. Of course Munkacs had a big Jewish community and a very religious one, but we were not so religious. My father went to Synagogue with me on the High Holydays and we had seats in the Synagogue, but my father wasn't so religious, although my mother was and she kept a kosher house and I remember every Friday evening my mother laying the table with a beautiful white cloth and the silver and the family came together to celebrate the Sabbath. I think my parents protected me, when I think about it now. I was spoiled by my three older sisters and my brother, the eldest, was in the Army and away. I became aware really when we were made to wear the Star of David and the Ghetto was formed in March 1944, and that things weren't good for us. My parents became more and more silent. As for anti-Semitism, well it has been there for hundreds of years and still exists today. There were many pogroms before Hitler, but nobody dreamed up such a systematic genocide before Hitler - to try to destroy a minority across so many countries is just unbelievable, but it happened because I saw it and experienced it first-hand. I was there.
Q2. Where you used to live before the war, could you get information about what was going on in Germany? Had you heard of the persecutions?
Like I said before, I was just a young boy, going to school, mad about football! You didn't have the internet and phones and communication wasn't so easy. I personally didn't know anything about what was going on in other parts of Europe. But I believe now that my father did - I learned after the war that he could have got out and gone to America, but I suppose like everybody else he didn't believe the stories.
Q3. Zionism was a movement that existed before the war. Did it have any impact on your community, on your family? Were there lots of people thinking that a Jewish state was the only possible answer to European anti-Semitism?
I cannot answer this question because we never discussed it and the family was not so religious. We thought we were Hungarian, Jewish yes, but there was not thought of the Jewish state in our family because we had been in this part of the world for so long. We thought we were just born there and it was where we belonged.
Q4. What made you feel Jewish before the war? Was it the religion itself? Was it the culture?
As I said before, I was just who I was, yes I was Jewish and we kept a kosher house but my father had a business and he employed other people and life was just normal and ordinary - we didn't think about our identity as being 'different'.
IN THE CAMP
Q1 In the camp, was there solidarity among people? Or would you say instead that the conditions were so extreme that notions such as solidarity, brotherhood, and even selfishness were abolished?
I do not remember any 'solidarity' in the camps. It was better when the camps were run by the Communists, like the Kapos were in charge and it was better when they were not run by criminals. It is hard for anyone to understand unless you were there. You were just clinging to life. We were so starved and hungry and thirsty and afraid. We were full of lice - I never had a change of underwear that I can remember and I had a jacket and trousers - some prisoners had a striped coat but I never had one. They beat us and I tried to make sure I was always in the middle, never at the end or the back or the front. You just got your bread and rotten soup and I ate it so it wasn't stolen and I obeyed orders - I tried to make myself small so no-one noticed me. The best prisoners were the Russians - they had already suffered and they would try to help you, but they had it really bad, just like the Jews and Gypsies. We were just a miserable set of people, alone and forgotten.
Q2 In the camp, the conditions were so horrible that no one except people who went through can possibly understand what it was like. But what helped you to hold on? How did you find the courage to hold on?
Well I don't think I had courage. I just went from day to day, on Appell, work for 12-14 hours a day, return to barracks, get counted again, have miserable food, go to the bunk, kill the lice and try to sleep. I just tried to live and had willpower. I thought about going to the wire many times, but I saw some people do this and I didn't do it. In Bergen Belsen before liberation I saw people biting into the flesh of others. I couldn't do this, but I did look in the pockets of dead people for crumbs or something to eat. I cannot answer this question as to how I survived. Maybe because I was young and strong and had been well nourished before they took us. I don't know.
Q3 Men such as Primo Levi wrote they were quite surprised and dumb-founded to see religious practices in the camp: was religion present in the camp? Were religious celebrations frequent or very rare?
I personally did not witness any religious ceremonies or practices, just sometimes people were praying in their misery. I heard people say, "G.d, where are you? Are you deaf and blind? Can't you see what they are doing to us?"
Q4 In the camp, could you somehow hear of what was going on outside the camp (eg the evolution in the war, the defeat of the Germans, the victories of the Allies)?
No, I never got any news about the war in the camps, but I could see the planes flying over. In the day it was the Americans and at night it was the RAF. I used to look up and they were like little birds flying and I hoped we would be free, but I didn't believe it.
Q4 In Vikot Frankl's book "A man's search for meaning" I read this sentence I can't understand: "we know - the best of us did not return". What does he mean?
I don't know what he means. Maybe he means, like for me, I lost my parents and sisters and I looked up to them - they were the best in my eyes, but they did not return.
AFTER THE CAMP
Q1 Jean Améry wrote that his experience made it impossible for him to trust -- to trust people, to trust the world. Did the camp have such an impact on your life?
No, I don't think so. When I was liberated the British Army really looked after me. I became an interpreter for them once I got a bit better. They clothed me and fed me and I had a billet with them - they were fantastic and then I met my future wife. She was English and with the Army and eventually I came to Britain, got married and had a family. I worked for Marks and Spencer for 35 years. There were so many kind people who helped me, a complete stranger. I could tell you so many stories. I tend to keep myself to myself and I watch things carefully, but I trust my friends and I have my family. The world is a cruel place and it saddens me greatly to see conflicts all over the world and man's cruelty. I just don't understand it. I know what this feels like, to be at the end of hatred when you did nothing other than be born a Jew. I don't like to cause any trouble and I know this has to do with the camps.
Q2 Have you had any children? In "Kaddish for an unborn child" Imre Kertesz explains his incapacity to have a child after the horror he went through: would you say having a child is a form of victory, a way to overcome the horror?
Yes, I had four children two grandchildren and for me they were new life and although I could never replace my lost family, they were a symbol of life going on and that I had survived. Nothing can overcome the horror of the camps. This is something I have had to learn to live with and also my family too.
Q3 Has the Shoah had any consequence on your religious practices? Elie Wiesel famously asked the question of G.od's existence after Auschwitz: what does this idea make you think?
As I said to you earlier we were not very religious in a practicing sense. I denied G.d for many years after liberation. I do not think about this.
Q4 What are the most important elements in your Jewish identity? Would you say that the Shoah is now a part of what Jewish identity (at least Jewish cultural identity) is made of?
All I know is that I was born a Jew and I suffered because of it. I am who I am and the Shoah is sadly part of me because I was there. But you should think also about other people too who suffered. In Dora-Mittelbau, there were Roma, Russian POWs, French resistance, Belgians, not just Jews, we were in the minority there, although we had the worst jobs.
Q5 What does the State of Israel represent to you? Is it somehow reassuring for you to know there is now a Jewish State?
Well I live in Britain and consider this to be my home now. It is right that there is a Jewish State. Nobody wanted us really and at least this is a place where Jews can be.
Q6 As regards the State of Israel and the hatred it is sometimes the target of, would you say that those anti-Israel feelings are the 21st century form of the 20th century anti-Semitism?
Well you cannot generalise about this. There are some people and nations / factions who are anti-Semitic and would like Israel and the Jews to disappear off the face of the earth and there are other people who disagree with some of Israel's policies, like building the settlements. You can love someone but dislike an aspect of them or part of their behaviour. Anti-Semitism is alive, but then so is Islamaphobia, hatred of the Roma - just look what is happening to them across Europe. It is really terrible and it hurts me to see this, that people did not learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
Q7 Would you say that another Shoah is still possible? What does make you scared it might happen again? What does make you confident about the future?
Yes I am sure it is still possible and we know this to be the case, just look at the Sudan, or Rwanda or Bosnia. They said never again, but see how it happened again. We must speak out whenever we can against such acts and be alert to make sure these people do not get into power. I think there are good people everywhere, this gives me confidence, but we have to watch out forever.
You can find out more about Eugene's experiences in our Survivor Stories section.