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Finally Free

Esther Teichtal

In every generation, a Jew is commanded to envision himself as if he went out of his own exile. It could be exile of the spirit, or the more gruesome exile of the body. What does the instant of liberation feel like? Tenacious Holocaust survivors relive their moment of freedom.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Name of Survivor: Mr. Willie Stern / London, UK

Went by the name of: Vilmos

Age at Liberation: 9 

Location: Bergen-Belsen

My father managed to get us onto the famous Kastner transport out of Hungary, yet for six months we were diverted and interned in a special section of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. My late brother came down with typhus there and was terribly sick. We were released in December 1944, but it wasn’t until we reached the reception center in St. Gallen, Switzerland, that my brother finally received medical care.

Once I saw my brother receiving medical attention, I knew liberation was a reality. In Bergen-Belsen my brother had become close to the Satmar Rebbe who was also on the transport, and even though the doctors told my brother he had to eat what was available, he refused to eat the nonkosher food until the Satmar Rebbe told him he must.

On Taanis Esther 1945, we left the reception center for Geneva and that was when I finally tasted genuine freedom. We were no longer enclosed by wire of any sort and the sheer normalcy of life felt exhilarating. I could walk outside whenever I wanted. I could walk to school! I could go to shul! As a child, watching my parents resume the mantle of responsibility was a huge thing. My mother began cooking for us as a family again, and the communal dining hall became a thing of the past. Having survived the war with my nuclear family intact there was no one I would rather be with.

I was the youngest, and the apple of my mother’s eye. Since I picked up French faster than anyone else, I shopped for her and I became her right-hand man, helping out with the cleaning and the endless peeling of potatoes. (That’s all we had. My mother cooked potatoes in countless variations.)

My close relationship with both my parents helped me adapt after the war. Until today I assess the value of my actions by comparing myself to what they might have done. My father had been a textile manufacturer in Hungary, yet was forbidden to work on Swiss soil. By traveling weekly after the war (from Monday to Thursday) he rebuilt his business in Austria. We all admired my mother for managing with very little after liberation, as she was accustomed to plenty of domestic help in Budapest. Yet neither of them ever gave the impression that they “had to rebuild” — they just got on with life.

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