February 19, 2020

Chapter Three: Growing Up in Pre-Nazi Europe

Ernie stands to the right in this photograph, with the cap on his head. His younger brother is to the left and his mother in the middle, along with an unidentified woman.

He was born Ernest Zeev Ehrenfeld on February 21, 1925, in Lucenec, a provincial city of 35,000 residents in the agricultural heart of Czechoslovakia. His father Max delivered furniture by horse-and-wagon. His mother Sarah owned a restaurant. 

Trauma struck early: Max died when Ernie was just seven. He suffered from dizzy spells that caused him to pass out and tumble from his horse-drawn carriage.

One day, someone spotted a hat lying in the bottom of the family’s well. The fire department recovered Max’s body, and Ernie recalls seeing his dead father lying there on a white sheet in the grass. He knew then his life was about to change. 

In 1992, when he was in his 60s, Ernie talked about his life with producers from the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, which conducted videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors, liberators and other eyewitnesses across the region.

Max, Ernie told his interviewers, had always been “the clown of the city,” a youth soccer coach who carried fireworks in his pockets for area kids. 

They followed his cart, calling out for him to toss out his wares, the youngest ones climbing up on the horses. 

Max once laid a bunch of fireworks out on the ground near where his brother sold watermelons. Customers unknowingly stepped on the explosives, setting them off. 

The kids all laughed. Max was their hero.

After his father’s death, Ernie relied on his stalwart mother for his boyhood lessons. But there was far less play in Sarah’s spirit.

She was a hard-working woman who ran “Sarah’s Restaurant” in town, a place where Jewish patrons regularly collected to socialize and play music. 

Sarah was always slaving in the kitchen, hectoring her oldest son, raising a rolling pin when he got in the way, Ernie told Oral History interviewers.

“Stop bugging me!” she’d say. “I have work to do! I’ll break your head!”

Ernie snuck outside to escape the kitchen hubbub. “If she saw me not doing anything, she’d say “Come wash the dishes, wipe this, do this.” 

Come summer, she sent Ernie off to live with his paternal grandparents in the countryside — “just to get rid of me,” he recalled. Still, he worshipped his mother.

Each morning, the boy accompanied his grandfather, Sigmund Ehrenfeld, to surrounding villages, taking the reins to guide the horse-and-buggy as the old man collected eggs from farmers for resale. 

On the Sabbath, Sigmund religiously attended services at his local temple, but had to bribe his grandson to go with him. 

“If I wanted pocket money, I had to schlep with him and go,” Ernie later told interviewers.

“I didn’t like the whole thing, but I had to go with him because I needed money, and if I didn’t go to the temple, then he didn’t give it to me.” 

Ernie also double-dipped, taking a similar bribe from his grandmother: “I was schlepping from both sides, so I had enough for going to the candy store and all those things.”

There are two synagogues in Lucenec, where a thriving community of long-bearded Orthodox Jews worked as farmers, doctors and shopkeepers. 

Ernie’s family lived above a neighborhood butcher shop. While his neighbors were non-Jewish, everyone got along, without the overt anti-Semitism that would eventually divide the entire European continent. 

Back then, Ernie loved bacon, which as a Jew he was forbidden from eating. But the Christian family that ran the butcher shop indulged him. 

“Just come in,” they’d say. “Nobody will see it.”

So he did.

Ernie was a bright boy who became multilingual early on: He spoke Hungarian at home and Slovak at the Jewish school he attended. 

In those days, he never bothered to learn the Yiddish his grandparents spoke. 

That would come later. 

The family restaurant was kosher and Sarah’s strudel brought customers from around the city. Ernie spent time here and with uncles and the local rabbi, who felt sorry for this boy without a father.

In town, Ernie was sometimes bullied because of his religion. 

But he sought to fit in.

“I got along. I just showed them what I am. I didn’t see any difference between the gentiles. Everyone is my friend. I didn’t understand why we aren’t all the same.” 

Ernie had brown hair and blue eyes. People said: “You don’t look Jewish.” And he was proud of that. He never offered his identity as a Jew: “If they asked me, I was.”

But in 1938, Lucenec changed. 

Anti-Semitism had spread from Germany to neighboring countries. Whether it was out of fear from the powerful Germans, or whether they’d always harbored such hatred, many people in town now viewed their Jewish neighbors with suspicion. 

A strict 6 p.m. curfew was introduced for Jews, who now had to wear yellow arm bands to distinguish them from other residents.

Jewish businesses were ordered closed. 

Ernie’s mother was banned from shopping at the local market until well after the best vegetables were sold off. But friends stepped in: farmers snuck into her restaurant to deliver fresh meat and eggs so her restaurant could continue.

Ernie learned first-hand about the hatred that had invaded his hometown. 

One evening, he ran into a policeman on the street, a cop he’d known for years. 

“Aren’t you Jewish?” the officer asked. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be out on the street?”

“I know,” the boy replied, “but I don’t know why.” 

“Get home quickly,” the officer hissed, “before I beat you up.”

Soon, gangs of Christian boys wandered the streets harassing Jews. Even long-time neighbors began avoiding Jewish families on the street. 

“They tried to be polite,” Ernie recalled. They’d say ‘Don’t call me; I’ll call you.’ And we didn’t push. We were just happy they left us alone.” 

Meanwhile, Ernie’s hardline mother had always insisted that he make something of himself. For a while, he got a job in a factory, salvaging the metal springs from old mattresses. The work was dirty and unfulfilling. 

So Ernie decided to follow in his mother’s footsteps.

“That’s how I got in the bakery business,” he said. “I loved too much licking the pans.”

He attended a vocational baking school — studying in the afternoon, working in the bakery each morning. There were 16-hour days, all without pay. Sometimes the work included washing the diapers of the boss’s children.

As rumors spread that the Germans were about to invade Czechoslovakia, prices soared. The baking school chefs sent Ernie into the countryside atop his bicycle to test the black market for hard-to-find eggs and flour.

The trips reminded him of those days with his grandfather. Much later, Ernie remembered them as a premonition to darker shopping trips to come, once war came calling, and he gathered food for his Nazi captors.

But even in 1938, there were lighter moments. 

Once, the chefs at the baking school took him to a brothel. Ernie told his mother he was going to see a movie. He remembers standing there with the others, assessing the line of prostitutes before him.

“Choose,” someone said.

Ernie picked the fattest one. He later told the others: With more flesh, he got more for his money.

In 1943, Ernie finally became a professional chef. 

But the following year, the life he knew in Lucenec ended for good.

By then, the Nazis had ruled Czechoslovakia for four long years. Finally, the German and Hungarian occupation issued an order — distributed through the synagogues:

All Jews were forcibly relocated to newly established ghettos on the outskirts of the city; a series of cramped apartment buildings where each family was issued one room apiece, and use of a communal kitchen.

Ernie later recalled how he struggled to pull a heavy four-wheel buggy, one usually attached to a horse, making numerous trips, carrying furniture and keepsakes between the family apartment and the ghetto. 

He likened it to a scene in the movie “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Not everything could go. Sarah parted with personal treasures.

“You can only put so much in one room,” Ernie told Holocaust Oral History interviewers. “We had a lot of neighbors, and my mother said ‘You take this, and you take this.’ And everyone was crying.”

It got worse.

Eventually, young Jewish men across Lucenec were ordered to report to the train station. Nobody knew why, but they could guess: laboring in the brutal German work camps behind Axis lines. 

Sarah filled a rucksack with necessities for her son — an extra sweater and a pair of shoes with slabs of wood hammered over the soles so they would last longer.

She had already given up a chance to save herself.

Friends had wanted to spirit her to England to escape the occupation. But Sarah would not go without her two sons.

Now Ernie was leaving, and his strong-willed mother finally broke down.

She’d long been her family’s emotional rock, who taught her eldest son how to bake and to become a fighter. But in the end, just before he trundled off toward the train station, there wasn’t much to say.

“She kissed me,” Ernie recalled, his voice breaking at the memory. “We were both crying. Everybody was crying.” 

The next day, Ernie boarded a train with 50 other young and bewildered Jewish men, each with simple rucksacks packed by their own families. 

None of them knew what the next precarious weeks and months would bring.

“We didn’t think anything bad. We knew that, because we were Jewish, they took us,” he said later. “Young guys like me; we didn’t dream about what we were getting into.”

He didn’t know he would never see his mother again. 

NEXT WEEK: Marianne arrives in Ernie’s kitchen, where he promptly circles the wagons. Forks fly.

John M. Glionna is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who chronicles the American West. He’s also a former national reporter for the Los Angeles Times, based in Vegas, and served as the Seoul bureau chief on the newspaper’s foreign desk, where he covered the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il. He has also written extensively about California. For more on Glionna visit his website.

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