January 19, 2019

Lili Weinberg: A Long March Out of Darkness Toward Hope

Photo by David Miller

“Zu zwei,” the female SS guard shouted. “In twos.” 

Eighteen-year-old Lili Montag — now Weinberg — grabbed her little sister Agi’s hand and quickly lined up. It was a bitter cold morning in late January 1945 and the final selection at Stutthof concentration camp as gunfire from the approaching Soviet army boomed in the distance. Their mother, Irma, stood in front of them. Lili had brightened her mother’s sunken cheeks with red paper, but to no avail. Irma was sent back to a barracks while Lili and Agi were directed to a different side. The girls watched as their mother, wrapped in a black coat, trudged through the snow to the fence for a last look at her daughters.

“Where shall we meet after the war?” Lili shouted to her mother, wanting to give her hope. “Back in Ungvar,” Irma answered.  But Lili knew they would never meet again.

For more than 70 years, every night before she falls asleep, Lili’s thoughts have returned to Stutthof, visited by visions of her mother, a black silhouette, walking back to the barracks in the snow. “It’s because I don’t know what happened to her,” Lili said.

Lili was born May 9, 1926, to Ludwig and Irma Montag in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine). Her older brother, Mickey (Mojsu), was born in 1924, and sister, Agi (Chajku), in 1930.

“As a child, Lili constantly was composing thoughts on small scraps of paper.”

Ludwig owned a small candy factory, providing his family with a comfortable, middle-class life. Devoutly Modern Orthodox, he taught Lili how to pray. He also emphasized education, encouraging her to take a rigorous exam that permitted her to attend gymnasium (high school).

Irma was a kind woman who worked tirelessly for her family. She dressed simply, and years later, when Lili was living in the United States, she dreamed that she pampered her mother by buying her stylish, new clothes.

As a child, Lili constantly was composing thoughts on small scraps of paper. For her 16th birthday, her father bought her a diary with a red velvet cover.

Life first changed for Lili in November 1938, when Uzhorod, renamed Ungvar, was returned to Hungary. Lili then attended a Hungarian gymnasium but was forced to transfer to the Hebrew gymnasium after three years.

Then, on March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Ungvar. Shortly after, while walking home, Lili was chased by a young German soldier who shouted, “I’ll kill you, Jew!”

The Montags huddled primarily at home and, despite their fears, observed the first seder on April 7. But while they were sitting around the table, with Ludwig reading from the haggadah, German soldiers suddenly began to bang on the window, shouting, “Damn Jews!” Ludwig lowered his voice and raised his arms, asking God for a miracle, while Irma blew out the candles. The children quietly sobbed. “We knew this was the beginning of hell,” Lili said.

In mid-April, the Ungvar Jews were ordered to move to the ghetto, located in the Moskovits brickyard. There, amid filth and overcrowding, Lili marked her 18th birthday.

At the end of May, on the last transport leaving Ungvar, the Montags were squeezed into a cattle car among 80 or more people. “When the doors closed, there was darkness inside and darkness in my heart,” Lili said.

Lili sat next to her father. At one point, the men and women were promptly separated. “I never had a chance to say goodbye to my father because they were shoving you with whips and shrieks,” Lili said.

Lili, Agi and Irma passed the initial selection and were then processed and sent to a barracks. “Welcome, animals,” the kapo greeted them. “We lost our parents, who burned in those gas chambers. You will go up in smoke, too.”

On the second night, they were harshly awakened and ordered to line up outside for a selection. But as heavy rain began to fall, they were instead marched to the train station and loaded into cattle cars.

The following night, they arrived at Krottigen, a subcamp of Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga, Lithuania. Lili was relieved it was not a death camp. She also was relieved to find a kind, middle-aged Wehrmacht soldier, Herr Zimmer, in charge of the workshop where they repaired army uniforms.

But three months later, in September, they were transferred to Stutthof concentration camp in northern Poland. There, they were ordered into a barracks under the abusive treatment of a Hungarian Jewish block leader who once slammed Lili’s head with her leather club.

A couple of weeks later, they were reunited with Zimmer, who walked them for half an hour to a warehouse in a beautiful wooded area where they again repaired uniforms. He was now stricter, whipping prisoners who disobeyed him. Lili never did.

“You cannot put into words the daily suffering,” Lili said. Awakened early, they spent long hours before and after work standing in roll call, shivering. They were exhausted and starving, their health rapidly deteriorating.

In late January 1945, as the camp was being evacuated, Lili and Agi were separated from their mother, given a portion of bread and dispatched on a death march, wearing thin dresses and clogs with no socks.

The march was endless, and Lili lost sense of the days and weeks. She and Agi didn’t talk. They just kept walking, knowing they risked being shot if they stopped. At night they slept in barns.

The two suffered from severe diarrhea. One morning, in a small village in northern Poland — Lili doesn’t know the name — they were ordered outside. But Agi couldn’t move. She told Lili to continue. “I did,” Lili said. “I wanted to survive.” She tearfully kissed Agi goodbye, but standing outside the barn after the door closed, she knew she had made a dreadful mistake.

German soldiers soon ordered them back inside. Lili was ecstatic, feeling her faith in God restored. “I’ll never leave you again,” she promised Agi, hugging her.

The prisoners remained in the frigid barn eating snow and chewing small chunks of coal to control their diarrhea. Many died. Lili and Agi, whom Lili later learned had typhoid fever, couldn’t move.

One night, probably in mid-March, Agi was gasping for breath, crying out for water. Someone slipped Lili a piece of ice, which she held over Agi’s burning lips. “For 13 years I lived,” Agi said in a weak and distant voice. “Then I died.”

In her delirium, lying there motionless, Agi asked her father to bring mint candy from the factory. She told her mother she wanted her back scratched and said farewell to her brother. She didn’t mention Lili.

Lili spoke to her, telling her she was there. She massaged her back and cold hands. Agi regained consciousness and recognized her sister. Lili was hopeful, but Agi slipped back into delirium, restless and unable to die peacefully. She climbed atop Lili, putting a suffocating pressure on her chest.

At dawn Lili awoke to find Agi dead, an empty gaze in her eyes and large, white lice swarming her stiff body. “That was the last of my sister,” Lili said. “She was such a good person.”

Lili and the other prisoners remained in the barn until one morning, sometime in April, they were greeted with silence. No guards appeared. Soon some prisoners rushed in shouting, “The war is over! We’re free!”

Later, a handsome Soviet soldier entered the barn on a tall horse, smiling at them. It was like a storybook fantasy, Lili thought. They couldn’t understand him, but his tone was comforting.

Those who could walk followed him outside. Lili, fearing abandonment, inched her way out on her elbows. She was taken to a house and then transferred to a nearby hospital, where she spent six weeks, including her 19th birthday, recovering. But, Lili said, she never regained her optimism.

Eventually, Lili returned to Ungvar, where she spotted her brother, Mickey, standing at the train station. They embraced, but the reunion lacked emotion.

Lili stayed with Mickey, who told her that their father had died on a train evacuating Auschwitz. She also visited her former apartment, where she unsuccessfully searched the attic for her diary. The loss saddened her. “I needed some proof that I had once been alive,” she said.

Soon after, she followed Mickey to Usti nad Labem, Czechoslovakia, where she worked in a toothpaste factory.

On Purim in 1946, Lili answered a knock on her door. “Do you want to get married?” someone asked, pointing to Mike (then Miksa) Weinberg. “This man wants to marry you.” Mike was from Uzhorod, 12 years older than Lili and a survivor. His wife and child had perished in the war.

“You never really come to terms with the Holocaust but when I write, I feel in some way — maybe it’s silly — it reaches my family. ” — Lili Weinberg

Mike took her to dinner. “I want to get married,” she told him. She was hungry and she wanted security.

The couple moved to Podmokly, Czechoslovakia, where they were married in a rabbi’s study on April 18, 1946. Their daughter Anita was born on May 16, 1948.

The following December, they moved to Israel. “I believe that was the most beautiful time of my life,” Lili said. Their second daughter, Ariella, was born in August 1953. Five years later Lili reluctantly left Israel for Los Angeles, where Mike’s brothers lived.

Lili, now 92, feels grateful to God for being alive and most grateful for her daughters. She also has four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Mike died in 2005.

When Lili was 57, sitting at a bus stop, she took out a pen and paper and began to write again. She has written — and continues to write — poems and also a memoir. “You never really come to terms with the Holocaust,” Lili said. “But when I write I feel in some way — maybe it’s silly — it reaches my family.”

Click here to read Lili Weinberg’s poem, “Nightmares.”