Survivor STORY

Ilona Herz Gottlieb was born in Budapest in 1918. Her father died before she can remember; her mother tried to earn a living as a seamstress although she worked very hard, she and Ilona lived in poverty.. Ilona remembers that her mother would have to warm up water on the stove for Ilona to wash herself, but there was never enough to feel clean. Sometimes they did not have much to eat. When Ilona was eight-years-old, her mother married a train conductor, who adopted her, but who died before the war, while Ilona was in high school.

Ilona met her future husband, Alexander Gottlieb, a musician, when she was sixteen. He played in an orchestra and though they fell in love and wanted to get married, he wanted to help his parents financially and knew they would not accept money from him if they found out he was responsible for a wife. Ilona started a small business so they would both have enough income to help their parents and save for a future. She knew her mother would not approve, so they were married in secret and continued to live with their parents.

Soon after they were married, Alexander was offered a position as leader of a girls’ orchestra in Bern, Switzerland, and even before they could go on a honeymoon, he moved there. An uncle in Cuba sent him an affidavit to emigrate, and told him that he would marry a rich girl in Cuba. Alexander didn’t want to admit to him that he was already married, but somehow the uncle found out. He was angry and disgusted that Alexander had married someone without social standing and refused to give Ilona an affidavit.

Ilona traveled to Switzerland to persuade Alexander to leave, because it was clear that life in Europe was becoming impossible for Jews, and he would have nothing if he came back to Budapest. He agreed and went to Cuba; Ilona returned to Budapest. Although Alexander tried to send Ilona an affidavit from Cuba, he couldn’t, because he didn’t make enough money to vouch for her.

Ilona recalls how terrifying the early days of the Nazi occupation of Hungary were. She heard that a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, had come to Budapest and was going to give out what amounted to false Swedish passports to effectively give Jews safe passage out of Nazi and the Hungarian collaborationist Arrow Cross control.

Wallenberg established a number of safe houses within Hungary disguised as official Swedish legation buildings under diplomatic protection. Ilona received a Schutzpasse, but never made it to a safe house. Her mother could have been protected in Budapest, but when Ilona was picked up to be transported to Bergen-Belsen, her mother decided to go with her.

Ilona and her mother arrived at Bergen-Belsen and were immediately taken to a gas chamber. The previous transport was naked and dead on the floor and was being swept out by prisoners. Fully expecting to be gassed, they were shocked when water came out of the spigots. Ilona remembers that the worst thing in Bergen-Belsen was the smell of burning flesh in the air and not knowing when their turn would come. Anne Frank was in the same barrack and Ilona and her mother, and Ilona remembers that she was taken to the infirmary and never returned.

As the Allied forces were closing in, the Germans decided to take a transport to Theresienstadt. Ilona was injected with something – to this day she has no idea what it was – that gave her a very high fever and eventually paralyzed her left side. She was separated from her mother and taken to a hospital. Ilona was liberated on a train somewhere between Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen, and then returned to Bergen-Belsen, which became a Displaced Persons camp after the war.

In the meantime, Alexander was able to make his way to America, and was part of the invasion by American Forces on D-Day. After the war ended, he searched all over, even by bicycle, to concentration camps looking for his wife. His brother wrote to him that Ilona was in Bergen-Belsen, but by the time he arrived, she had already returned to Budapest. They were reunited in Budapest after being apart for seven years. She followed him to Germany, where his battalion was stationed. His unit put Ilona in some army boots and passed her off as a sick soldier, lucky that the Russians in the area didn’t ask for papers. Alex was able to get permission to bring Ilona back to the States after his service.

The couple settled down in New York City, and later moved to Astoria, on Long Island, with their son and daughter. Ilona had tremendous difficulty taking care of the children because of the paralysis induced by the injection she had received in Bergen-Belsen and problems with her feet, the result of frostbite from standing in appel to be counted by the Germans. Her mother, who had been rescued by the Red Cross before the official end of the war, came to the United States to help her. Ilona, who moved to Atlanta to be near her family, now celebrates having five great-grandchildren!

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Ilona Herz Gottlieb