Survivor: Emil Jacoby

On Saturday evening, March 18, 1944, Emil Jacoby’s father walked him to the train station in Cop, Czechoslovakia. Emil, just 20, had spent an emotional weekend with his family — their last weekend together, though they didn’t know it at the time — and was returning to Budapest. Unable to buy a ticket for the express train, which was booked, he hopped a local freight train. But when his ride pulled into the Budapest station 12 hours later, Emil was startled to see German and Hungarian soldiers all around. He remained in the car until he could leave without being noticed. “I was trying to escape with my life,” he recalled. Later that day he learned that German soldiers, who had marched into Hungary that morning, had met all the arriving passenger trains, rounding up the Jews and deporting them to labor camps. 

Menachem (Mendel in Yiddish and Emil in Hungarian) Jakubovics was born on Nov. 30, 1923, in Cop, a small town on the Hungarian border, to Benjamin and Rivkah Jakubovics. He was the second child and oldest son in a family of three boys and three girls. 

Benjamin owned a grocery store and the observant family lived comfortably. Benjamin served as secretary of the entire Jewish community, which included about 100 families and two synagogues. But in November 1938, Hungary occupied southern Slovakia, including Cop, and non-Hungarian Jews soon faced deportation. 

Hungarian police arrived at the Jakubovics’ home one evening, taking the parents and six children in two taxis to the Slovak border. Emil and his brother Zvi, who were in one taxi, were dropped off in unfamiliar surroundings. They wandered for several hours in the darkness until a Slovak policeman directed them to the Jewish quarter in Michalovce, where their aunt and uncle lived. They stayed with the couple, attending the local Jewish school.

The rest of their family found their way to Velykyi Bereznyi, about 30 kilometers away, where they lived with Emil’s father’s parents.  Half a year later, the family was reunited in Cop.

Soon after, Emil was sent to an extremely Orthodox yeshiva in Uzhhorod, Hungary (then Ungvár).

During this time, Emil became involved with Bnei Akiva, an illegal, religious Zionist organization. Unable to reconcile his new political activism with yeshiva life, in early 1939 Emil transferred to the Hebrew gymnasium, a modern high school, where he was exposed to Latin, English and other secular subjects, in addition to Jewish studies. “It was perhaps the most important decision in my life at that time,” Emil said.

In Bnei Akiva, Emil took the name Uziel, after Rav Ben-Zion Uziel, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine. He was called “Uzi,” a nickname still used by family and close friends.

In 1943, after graduation, Emil moved to Budapest to continue his work with Bnei Akiva, living in a house with other chaverim (comrades) and sharing expenses. He found a job as an electrician’s apprentice and also registered at the University of Budapest, where, forbidden to enroll in engineering classes, he studied Slovak languages.  

On behalf of Bnei Akiva, Emil traveled on weekends to Hungarian villages, meeting with local activists, warning people about the advancing German armies and providing many Jews with false identification papers. “I didn’t feel comfortable in the university at that time. I wanted to do meaningful things,” Emil said.

When Germany invaded Hungary, Emil, returning to Budapest that morning by freight train, was able to contact Bnei Akiva leaders and locate a safe place to stay. 

In May, he was assigned to cross the border into Romania, stopping first in Debrecen. The Americans, however, had bombed the station and the train unexpectedly halted outside the city. Emil and other chaverim exited and separately made their way to a secret meeting place, an abandoned apartment house. There, in the dark, they were deciding to return to Budapest when they suddenly heard a loud banging on the door. A neighbor had heard their voices and called the police, who broke in and apprehended several of them. Emil escaped through the attic to another apartment and eventually returned to Budapest.

During this time Emil worried about his family, as he heard that the ghetto in Cop had been liquidated and the Jews taken to Uzhhorod.

About two weeks later, as instructed, Emil traveled by train to a village near the Romanian border. Early the next morning a smuggler led him and other chaverim toward the border, stopping at a certain point and motioning for them to proceed. From a distance, Emil heard barking dogs, which distracted the guards, and the group crossed safely. They continued walking in the dark and soon arrived at a Slovak village, where they were fed and hidden in an attic. Early the next morning, they were taken to the train station and told to disembark at Arad, in western Romania. 

In Arad, Emil met with other Bnei Akiva chaverim in a synagogue. They discussed the best ways to assist the hundreds of Jews escaping from Hungary, Poland and other countries in reaching the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania, and traveling to Palestine. 

Emil made his way to Bucharest, where he made contact with the local Zionist organization and continued his rescue work. On August 23, 1944, Soviet troops liberated Bucharest, making life less dangerous, though Emil was wary of the Russians.

In April 1945 Emil traveled to Timisoara, Transylvania, for Bnei Akiva’s first international conference. There, he was officially elected to one of the movement’s executive leadership positions.

Emil was then called back to Budapest, where he was reunited with his three surviving siblings: Malka, Hanna and Zvi. He also enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Budapest. 

He continued his work with Bnei Akiva, establishing schools and camps for orphaned children and teenagers. While serving as the director of a summer camp near Lake Balatan, Hungary, he met a junior counselor named Erika Engel. On Nov. 29, 1947, they became engaged, the same day Emil received his doctorate.

Erika then left for Cuba with her surviving mother and brother, and Emil departed for Paris. There he worked at Merkaz L’Europa, again helping refugees travel to Palestine, which became the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. 

In August 1949, Emil traveled to New York City, where he was invited to enroll at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He received a bachelor’s degree in divinity and a master’s in Jewish education, as well as a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia University’s Teachers College. 

He and Erika reunited in October 1949 and married on Sept. 24, 1950. They have three sons: Jonathan, born in 1953, Benjamin in 1956 and Michael in 1957.

In July 1953, Emil and Erika moved to Los Angeles, where Emil took a job at Valley Jewish Community Center, which later became Adat Ari El. He was director of education there from 1953 to 1976. 

In 1976, Emil was appointed associate director and later executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles. In 1993, he shifted his focus to school accreditation, retiring in 2008. 

Emil, who recently turned 90, enjoys his family, which now includes 10 grandchildren. 

Emil has dedicated his life to educating Jews. “I want to make sure the value of Judaism stays there for the Jewish people,” he said.