‘He was the only one to survive’

There is an inscription outside the visitors’ center of Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, located in Jerusalem, Israel. It reads:

Has the like of this happened in your days

or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children

about it, and let your children tell theirs,

and their children the next generation!

(1 Joel, 2 -3)

It’s for this reason, precisely, that I traveled to Israel. My grandfather, Jakab Farkas, had never told his children about his experience, and I knew very little. We were going to the museum together, so I hoped he might tell me.

It’s a strange thing to go to such a museum with a survivor, to see photos, glance over, and think, “That might have been him” or “That was him.” I watched him look for himself in the photographs. Look for his parents, his brother, his sisters, his friends.

Seventy years later, he’s still searching for the family he lost.

I noticed that he kept his arm pressed to his side, as though to hide the numbers that marked him as an inmate of Birkenau. He didn’t want to be viewed as part of the exhibit, though, as he told me later, the exhibit provided only a minor glimpse into the past. “No matter what you read, or what you see in a museum, you can never really know what it was like. You had to live it.”

Hearing that, and seeing him fidget, I wondered when I ought to ask a personal question, or if I ought to ask.

Then, as I was looking at a case of striped pajamas, he waved me over. “Come. I want to show you something.”

I followed him to the placards that discussed the death marches. He pointed to the first one, which explained the evacuation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and held out his arm so I could see his tattoo. “The B stands for Birkenau. They gave it to us when we began the march.”

Using the placards as guidance, he walked me through the march from Birkenau to Althamer to Mauthausen to Gunskirchen. Our companion, my uncle’s mother, stared at him in awe. “How did you survive?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

But I knew a part of the answer, and I wanted to hear the rest, so I asked my grandfather to accompany me to the model of the barracks, which happened to be right next to the striped pajamas. Jakab Farkas used both to survive. I wanted to hear about it.

Birkenau was frequented by Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician known as the Angel of Death, famous for conducting cruel experiments on human subjects. When Jakab got off the train at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mengele was the one to whom he first reported. He lied about his age, claiming he was sixteen instead of thirteen, which saved his life for the time being.

Mengele would come again, and again, and again. He knew the Jewish calendar, so he’d select holidays for mass executions. At one point, he put up a bar to aid his selection: If you could reach the bar, you lived another day, and if you couldn’t, you were sent to the gas chambers.

Jakab Farkas couldn’t reach.

Here’s where the pajamas come in. Being small, the pants were a bit long, so he strapped stones to his feet in order to gain a few extra inches. With the inmates pressed so close together, nobody could tell. Time and time again, he reached the bar, and he was spared.

But on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Mengele noticed. He sent Jakab to Barrack 13, the last stop before a gas chamber. It was locked. It was guarded. At midnight, everyone in the barrack would be killed.

Staring at the model of a barrack in Yad Vashem, I asked my grandfather to explain how, exactly, he survived.

By then, he told me, many were resigned to death, and so his fellow prisoners were huddled in prayer. But Jakab told himself that the time for prayer had passed. He had to act. If he was going to die, he was going to die trying to escape.

He noticed that there were small holes in the roof, like skylights. Being tiny for his age, as well as malnourished, he figured he could squeeze through one of the holes, provided he could reach one. He’d worry about getting down later. Careful to keep out of sight of the guards, he climbed up to the top bunk, then swung onto the rafters. From there, he pulled himself through the hole onto the roof.

He jumped down and ran toward the next barrack, where he knew he’d be safe. Alas, an SS officer grabbed him. He knew he was up to no good, so he beat Jakab with his baton and tossed him back into Barrack 13. Everyone was still praying.

Jakab waited a few minutes. Then he tried again, managing to get onto the roof, and jump down, and run, and—

Caught, and by the same officer, no less. The officer recognized him, so this time, he beat him unconscious. Tossed him back in Barrack 13.

When Jakab came to, a few hours later, he couldn’t move. He felt like all his bones were broken, and most likely, some of them were. “I still have the bumps from when the officer hit me,” he said in Yad Vashem, bending over so I could see his head. Sure enough, they were there. “I’m lucky he didn’t kill me right then.”

Maybe he was feeling merciful, or maybe he figured he’d be murdered in a few hours, anyway. By the time Jakab regained consciousness, the sun had set, which meant the time of execution was fast approaching. He knew it, so weak, dizzy, bruised and broken, he tried again, climbing onto the bunks, through the hole, to the roof.

This time, he made it to barrack next door.

Hearing this story, and in Yad Vashem no less, was a deeply powerful experience, especially because of the way he told it. He stated the facts, as though they were neither good nor bad. It just happened. That manner of storytelling forced me to think about all those who weren’t so lucky:  a short while after Jakab reached safety, he heard the cries, shouts, orders to take those inside Barrack 13 to the gas chamber. There were a thousand people inside, including a friend from his hometown, who was too afraid to join him in his escape attempt.

He was the only one to survive.


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