November 16, 2018

Survivor Amrom Deutsch: A brush with death before liberation

Eighteen-year-old Amrom Deutsch stood in line with his parents and five of his siblings as the Jews of Sighet, then part of Hungary, were evacuated from the ghetto and crammed into a string of waiting cattle cars, more than 80 in each wagon. There was room only to stand — even for sleeping — and no food or water. Two barrels served as toilets. 

“To describe the stench, there are no words,” Amrom said. By the third day, babies and young children were choking to death from the vile odor. 

Eventually, passengers had little choice but to begin sitting on the dead bodies. “To tell the truth, nobody had a mind,” Amrom recalled. After 4 1/2 days, sometime during the third week of May 1944, the train arrived at Auschwitz. A third of the Jews in Amrom’s car were dead already.

Amrom was born Adolf Deutsch on Aug. 8, 1925, in Sighet — at the time a part of Romania, in Northern Transylvania — to Mindel and Jacob Deutsch. He was the eighth of 11 children.

The family, who were very observant, lived in a three-room house, consisting of a large kitchen and two bedrooms. Outside, Mindel raised vegetables in a backyard garden. 

Jacob originally ran a yard goods store, but the family was plunged into poverty after World War I, when customers were unable to repay the credit Jacob had extended to them. By the early 1930s, unable to make a living, Jacob left for Constanta, on the Black Sea coast, where he sold kosher milk to Jewish families. He returned home once a year, for Passover or Yom Kippur. 

Amrom remembers often going to bed hungry, sometimes crying himself to sleep. By age 5, he was sneaking out of the house in the early morning and gorging himself on the fruit from neighbors’ trees, until his mother found out. 

At age 9, Amrom began earning money by going door to door to cut people’s hair. At 14, he bought two Angora rabbits, breeding them and selling their sought-after fur. He accumulated more than a thousand rabbits, which he kept in hand-built crates. 

In August 1940, when the Romanians were forced to cede Northern Transylvania back to Hungary (which had controlled it before World War I), Hungarian soldiers marched into Sighet shouting, “Piszkos Zsido” (Dirty Jew). Amrom’s family, including Jacob, who was home at the time, hid behind the fence that enclosed their property. This was the first time Amrom, who had grown up among Hungarians, was exposed to anti-Semitic taunts. 

Jacob remained in Sighet, leasing and managing a bathhouse, which was open to the community. 

But Amrom’s relatively normal life came to an end when Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944. The following month, at the end of Passover, a Hungarian official knocked on the family’s door. “You are now occupied by Germany,” he said. 

A few days later, another official came for Amrom, then 18, escorting him to the military garrison where about 400 young men had been assembled. The next day, they were marched to the small mountain town of Kobylecka Polana, about a four-hour trek, where they were housed in the empty synagogue, sleeping on the floor. 

In the mornings, they were marched up the mountain, where they chipped thick ice off tepee-shaped piles of hay, then bundled the hay with wire and carted it to waiting boxcars. Though they worked seven days a week from morning to night, Amrom said, they enjoyed regular food and no beatings.

After five weeks, the boys were marched back to Sighet, where they were reunited with their families, now living in the ghetto. “Everyone was crying,” Amrom said. The Jews learned they would be evacuated soon. 

The train pulled up to the Auschwitz platform at night. “Get off quick or the dogs will bite you,” men in striped uniforms warned the prisoners. Amrom was sent off with a group of younger men. “We just thought they were taking us to work,” he said. 

The prisoners were disinfected and shaved and then taken to shower, waiting naked outdoors until everyone finished. They then were tattooed, with Amrom becoming A3146, and afterward given striped uniforms and metal bowls. Finally, they were assigned to a barracks. 

On the second day, Amrom and others began to ask questions. “We started to wake up,” he said, learning that his parents and youngest sister had been murdered in the gas chamber. 

In Auschwitz, the prisoners endured twice-daily roll calls but otherwise could roam around. After Amrom found his brother Sruli, then 16, he sold his shoes for a box of 50 cigarettes, giving it to Sruli to help him survive. But two days later, Sruli disappeared. 

After nine days, Amrom and others were sent to Buna-Monowitz, the third concentration camp in the Auschwitz complex. There, like most prisoners, he worked making synthetic rubber. Additionally, every Saturday and Sunday, he and two others cut the hair of all 90 prisoners in their barracks, entitling them to extra rations. 

By December 1944, Russian troops were advancing, and American and British aircraft were dropping bombs on the camp. Then, on Jan. 18, 1945, the prisoners were evacuated, forced to walk in their thin uniforms in freezing weather. After four days, sleeping in various camps at night, Amrom’s group was given blankets and loaded into open cattle cars, where they ate falling snow to survive. 

After several days, they arrived at Bergen-Belsen, in Lower Saxony, Germany, where they found the streets of the severely overcrowded concentration camp littered with dead and dying prisoners, victims of starvation and rampant diseases. Amrom’s group was ordered to collect the dead bodies, dragging each corpse, in groups of four, to a special barracks. 

Some weeks later, Amrom and other barely ambulatory prisoners were transported in open cattle cars to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, a concentration camp 22 miles north of Berlin. They were housed in a large hangar on the grounds of an aircraft plant, where Polish prisoners threatened them. 

A couple of weeks later, they were again packed into open cattle cars, again in the snow, and returned to Bergen-Belsen. By this time, there was little supervision and no work. “We were in such bad condition, we already were dead bodies,” Amrom said. 

A large bonfire roared day and night in the middle of the camp. “I don’t like to talk about that,” Amrom said, explaining that starving prisoners put pieces of dead bodies on the fire, pulling off whatever meat they could find. Amrom himself wore down his teeth trying to suck marrow out of a bone. “We had to do it to survive,” he said. But finally, with no more energy to keep himself alive, he crawled into a barracks and lay down among the dead bodies. 

British soldiers found him there, semiconscious, on April 15, dispatching him to a hospital in the nearby town of Celle. Nuns removed his clothes, which he had not taken off in almost a year. They placed him in water every day for four days to loosen the caked-on dirt and fed him only drops of milk at a time. Slowly, he began to recover.

Four months later, Amrom was discharged, making his way back to Bergen-Belsen after learning that a cousin, Adjud Deutsch, was in the women’s camp. He found her, ill, in a room she shared with three women.

Amrom stayed in the men’s camp. During the day, Amrom and Hershey Friedman, the brother of Adjud’s roommates, rode the trains, stealing suitcases from German passengers. They found food and clothing, as well as a piece of material large enough for Amrom to commission a coat for Adjud. Six weeks later, when German police began riding the trains, Amrom and Hershey switched to buying coffee from the British and selling it in small towns.

When Adjud recovered, she and Amrom became the first couple in Bergen-Belsen to get married. In borrowed clothes, they stood before a British rabbi on Jan. 1, 1946, with the entire camp as their guests. 

A few months later, Amrom and Adjud visited Sighet, where Amrom learned that eight of his siblings, all except Sruli and his youngest sister, Perela, had survived.

Amrom and Adjud’s daughter, Mindy, was born in January 1947, in Bergen-Belsen, where the family remained until they immigrated to New York, arriving on Aug. 29, 1949. 

Amrom worked as a baker, and in 1951, he and a cousin opened the Carmel Bakery in Bensonhurst. A son, Jack, was born in January 1953. 

In 1957, suffering from asthma, Amrom moved his family to Los Angeles. He worked at several bakeries before buying Valley Bakery in North Hollywood in 1959. In 1970, Amrom sold the bakery and built two retirement hotels, Valley View Retirement in Panorama City and, a few years later, Valley View Retirement North in Arleta. He retired from both in 1990.

Since 1991, Amrom has served as gabbai of Congregation Bais Naftoli in Los Angeles, assisting in the running of services. 

Adjud died in early 1995, and on June 11, 1995, Amrom married Dita Sidlow. Now 92, Amrom is the grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of 17. 

Since 2015, Amrom has volunteered as a speaker at the Museum of Tolerance. 

“I never gave up the belief that I would survive,” Amrom said. “I am grateful for every day I am here.”