As the transport from Tacova, Czechoslovakia (then called Tecso, Hungary), pulled up to the Birkenau platform in late May 1944, the doors of the cattle cars slammed open. “Raus, raus,” the SS shouted, directing those fit for work into separate men’s and women’s lines. The others, mostly children and the elderly, were steered to another line. Josef Kreitenberg, 14, followed his mother and twin sister, Sura, to the group of nonworkers. Then he abruptly switched lines, joining his father, two brothers and other male workers. He stood on a stone he found nearby to make himself look taller. Josef doesn’t know what prompted him to move. “I guess I wanted to be with my father and brothers,” he said.
Josef was born on Oct. 31, 1929, in Tacova, Czechoslovakia (now Tyachiv, Ukraine), to Elias and Chaya Kreitenberg. He had three older brothers — Sam, Yitzhak and Mendy — as well as his twin.
The family struggled financially, living in two rooms in half of a house that had no electricity, sharing space with Elias’ shoe repair business and Chaya’s dressmaking shop. Josef’s maternal grandparents and three aunts, his mother’s younger sisters, lived in the other half of the house. “Life was not easy,” Josef said.
The family was traditional Orthodox, as were the thousand or so other Jews in their small town. Josef spent mornings in the Czech public school and afternoons and evenings in cheder, where he studied Torah.
Anti-Semitism was always present, and Josef remembers running from boys calling out “dirty Jew.” But the Kreitenbergs also coexisted peacefully with the town’s Christians, people who patronized his parents’ businesses.
In March 1939, Hungary occupied Tacova and Josef’s school became Hungarian.
Around 1943, Josef’s oldest brother, Sam, was taken to a Hungarian forced labor battalion. And Elias, because he was Romanian-born, was imprisoned for six months, until Chaya succeeded in securing his release.
On March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. And although it was Hungarian, rather than German, soldiers who entered Tacova, “Life quickly changed,” Josef said. The Kreitenbergs feared even to step outside of their house, because soldiers were beating up Jews.
Then in mid-April, Tacova’s Jews were relocated to a ghetto at the end of town. Josef, his parents, Yitzhak, Mendy and Sura, along with two of his aunts, moved into a barn. His grandparents, meanwhile, had died, one aunt had moved to Budapest, and Sam remained in the forced labor battalion.
In late May, the ghetto residents were marched to the train station and crammed into waiting boxcars.
After arriving at Birkenau, Josef and the other men were taken to a barracks. The next day, they were processed, including being tattooed. Josef became 10192.
They were then marched to Auschwitz and lined up as Germans called out for volunteers to work as muhlfahrer. Because muhl sounded like mel, the Yiddish word for flour, Josef, Elias and Mendy volunteered, thinking they would be working in a flour mill. Instead, they found themselves toiling in a garbage dump, and discovering that muhlfahrer meant garbage men.
Yitzhak worked elsewhere with his friends. “We never saw him again,” Josef said. He later learned that Yitzhak, always fussy about his food, had refused to eat and died of starvation.
In the garbage dump, which was located outside the camp, Josef, Mendy and Elias, along with 35 or so other inmates, sorted wagonloads of trash as well as debris from arriving transports. But the work had its benefits. “Sometimes we could find things to eat,” Josef said.
After a transport from Lodz, Poland, arrived in August 1944, Josef came across a large cookie with a gold bracelet hidden inside. Through a connection in the camp bakery, he traded the bracelet for seven loaves of bread and some sugar. He hid the food in the barracks and also filled a canteen he found with a mixture of breadcrumbs and sugar.
Then, in a selection that took place in late December 1944, his father, Elias, was taken away. “I never saw him again,” Josef said.
Around the same time, as the prisoners were returning from work one day, a Gestapo guard gratuitously smacked Josef across his face. “I saw fire in front of my eyes,” he said.
In the very early morning of Jan. 17, 1945, the prisoners were ordered outside and evacuated, walking all day and all night. “Anyone who couldn’t make it was shot,” Josef said.
They arrived at Gleiwitz, Poland, the next morning and were loaded onto open boxcars, so crammed they had to stand almost motionless. “I was lucky to have my brother. He watched over me,” Josef said of Mendy. They traveled for several days with no food or water, trying to catch the falling snowflakes. Josef, however, still had the canteen with breadcrumbs and sugar, which he shared with Mendy. “That’s what kept us alive,” he said.
Finally they arrived at Dora-Nordhausen in Germany. Thirsty after exiting the train, Mendy drank some water that made him ill. After a week or two in the barracks, he couldn’t even stand, and Josef was forced to leave him.
In early April 1945, as the war was winding down, the prisoners were loaded into closed boxcars and transported to Bergen-Belsen. There, they found no food or water, just hundreds of prisoners sick and dying from a typhus outbreak.
On April 15 the prisoners were summoned to roll call and informed that the British had liberated the camp. That was a relief to Josef. But, he said, “Mainly what went through my mind was, ‘Where and what do I get to eat?’ ”
The prisoners were transferred to a former German army barracks in the nearby town of Celle, which became the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp.
Josef was later trucked to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, where he caught a train to Budapest. There, in a refugee center, he unexpectedly encountered Mendy.
The brothers headed for Tacova, where they found their three aunts and Sam, who had spent the war in a labor battalion. Eventually they all made their way to the Gabersee displaced persons camp near Wasserburg, Germany.
In Gabersee, Josef and Mendy, who were both 18 or younger at the time, qualified to receive special orphan visas to immigrate to the United States, arriving in January 1947. They were sent to Los Angeles, where they rented a room, paid for by Vista del Mar.
In 1949, Josef and Mendy (now Mike) brought Sam to Los Angeles. Their three aunts, by then married, also joined them.
Josef attended Roosevelt High School, graduating in January 1951. After high school, he attended Los Angeles City College, hoping to become a teacher. But the Korean War had broken out, and he was drafted, assigned to a heavy-weapons company in Metz, France, where, from 1953 through ’54, he taught English and arithmetic to soldiers.
In 1954, Josef visited Israel while on furlough. During his return to France by ship, he met Marlene Laufer, who was joining her sister in South America. Josef and Marlene corresponded for three years while Josef returned to the U.S. and earned a degree in accounting at Los Angeles State College.
Marlene came to Los Angeles in 1957, and they married on Aug. 31 of that year. Josef worked as an accountant for several electronics companies and then, in the 1960s, he and Marlene’s brother formed K & L Construction, building apartments and condominiums.
Josef and Marlene have three sons: Irv, born in December 1959; Steve in April 1962; and Mordechai in May 1967.
Sam died in 2008. Mike is alive, but has Alzheimer’s.
Josef retired in the late 1990s, but, now 85 and the grandfather of 18, he continues to manage some properties. He also occasionally speaks to school groups.
The tall young man on the right is Yitzhak Kreitenberg. On his right is Mendy Kreitenberg and next to him, in the hat, Elias Kreitenberg. The child in the center, partially seen, is Josef.
Around 1979, Josef learned that a trove of photographs from Auschwitz had been discovered and compiled into a book called “The Auschwitz Album.” Josef ordered it, discovering that the photographs specifically chronicled the arrival of his transport. “When I opened the book and I saw the pictures of my family, I cried. I cried very hard,” he said. These are his only photographs of Sura and his parents.
The girl in the top left is Suri Kreitenberg, Josef’s twin sister. On her right is their mother, Chaya Kreitenberg.
Josef doesn’t know how or why he survived. “Even when I was in Auschwitz, when I was going to work, I used to pray, whatever prayers I knew by heart,” he said.