Saved by Wallenberg
“My message is to try to live together wall all nationalities. We are all brothers really. We all children of God.”
– Isaac Niederman, the only survivor in a family of ten
Life Before the War
Isaac Niederman was born on May 6, 1923, at Satu-Mare, in the province of Transylvania, Romania. His birthplace was not far from Sighet, Romania, where the writer Elie Wiesel was born in 1928. They grew up in a Jewish world that was more in touch with Biblical Palestine than with events unfolding in Europe.
Isaac’s parents were Jakob and Hana Niederman. Jakob and his brothers Abraham, Hirsch, and Bernard (Berl) operated the family’s wine business, “Berkovich-Niederman.” Transylvania had “a lot of grapes,” Isaac tells us, and “good wines.” His family had lived in Satu-Mare for four or five generations. The wine business had been in family hands for three generations. Before the end of World War I and the restructuring of Central and Eastern Europe that followed, the Jews of Transylvania, as Hungarians, were loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Isaac’s grandfather Josef Leopold Niederman was a soldier in the Kaiser’s army. Isaac grew up listening to stories about the war. Isaac’s parents were Hungarians who became Romanian citizens only when the border changed under their feet. Isaac explains, “The children were Romanian, our fathers were all Hungarians.” And they were nostalgic. They clung to the memory of Kaiser Franz Josef. Maybe he didn’t love the Jews, but he protected them. That was enough. His portrait graced many a Jewish home. They talked about him like he was around the corner. Those were the good days old days.
Anti-Semitism Before the War
Isaac says that anti-Semitism was pervasive before the war. It was as much a part of life as breathing. He recalls a particularly galling incident: “I remember when Passover came around, the priest with all his students came around to all the Jewish neighborhoods …they came around and threw rocks in Jewish synagogues. They threw rocks. I remember we were sitting by the Sabbath meal, and they threw a rock, fell right on my father’s plate. Even broke the plate, and the soup and everything go all over his lap.”
Miklos Horthy, Regent of the Hungarian government, was the self-described “first” anti-Semite in the country. He came to power in 1920, after crushing a communist take-over by Bela Kun, whose Jewish origins didn’t go unnoticed and, for those in need of convincing, confirmed the stereotype of “Jewish-communism.” Horthy’s government was allied to Nazi Germany and issued the same racial laws and anti-Jewish decrees. In the years leading up to the war, the atmosphere in Hungary was brimming with Jew-hatred. As Isaac relates: “I came up under anti-Semitic country, whether it was Romania or it was Hungary.”
Start of World War II
When Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Hungarian troops went along. In the course of the war, Hungarian soldiers would bloody their hands in many atrocities against Jews. Hungary shared in the spoils of Nazi aggression. It got a slice of Slovakia in 1938 after the Munich arrangement. In April 1940, Romania was forced to hand over Northern Transylvania, which included Isaac’s hometown Satu-Mare. He was 18 years old when the Hungarian soldiers marched in. He recounts the bitter irony of that occasion: “I remember a lot of the old Jewish people who know Hungary before the war, they thought they were the same Hungarians but they weren’t. They ran all out with the colors of the Hungarian flag and everything. And the anti-Semites start screaming, ‘What you happy about this? You don’t know what’s waiting for you.’”
Jews without Romanian citizenship were the first expelled. Many were forced to return to Poland. The Romanian Jews were robbed of their property. Greed accompanied the Germans every step of the way. Isaac’s family lost the wine business. They were destitute. Jews were evicted from their homes and concentrated in designated neighborhoods. The barbed wire would go up later.
The German-Russian War
Hitler unleashed his armies against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Isaac’s brothers Karl and Bernard were conscripted into one of the labor battalions attached to the Hungarian armies in Russia. Isaac wasn’t conscripted. His two brothers were treated unmercifully in Russia. Karl, the artist, died of pneumonia. Isaac’s father Jakob learned from a Hungarian guard how Bernard, the printer of Jewish literature, died. As Isaac tells us, the Hungarian first wanted Isaac’s father to pay for the information: “‘Okay, I’m gonna tell you about it,’ and he was drunk, and he said, ‘Your son’s both legs was frozen. He wasn’t used anymore for work. They was doing mine-picking, they pick mines, and maybe by now he’s probably already dead.’ And that’s what he told my father.”
Isaac’s mother Hanna died of leukemia in 1943. Isaac recalls: “And we start struggling a little more, because we didn’t have a lady in the house. My little sister was eleven years old, and my older sister was already married. She was living in a different town. She had two little girls already. And we just struggled along.”
For three and a half years, while European Jewry was being murdered in “the east,” the Jews of Hungary lived grimly but in relative tranquility. Only a few were aware of the mass murder campaign swirling around them. Rumors about terrible things in occupied Poland were impossible to believe and easily dismissed. By 1944, the world had plenty of information about the Holocaust, but the Jews in Hungary did not.
Nazi Occupation of Hungary in March 1944
Hitler didn’t overlook the 700,000 Jews in Hungary. They were the last intact Jewish community in Europe. Horthy had preached anti-Semitism. His political career was based on it. He had done as much as anyone to poison the atmosphere with Jew-hatred. But Horthy drew the line at murder. He twice refused Hitler’s demands to deport the Jews: “We are accused, therefore, of the crime of not having carried out Hitler’s wishes, and I am charged with not having permitted the Jews to be massacred.”
On March 19, 1944, as the Red Army approached the Hungarian border, the Germans occupied Hungary. SS officer Adolf Eichmann and his experienced cadre of murderers set up headquarters in Budapest and promptly organized the the “resettlement” of the Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau
The Nazis were assisted by many collaborators. Killers and thieves were one and the same. The collaborators included the Hungarian police, the Hungarian civil service, and the ordinary person who seized upon the misfortune of others and stole everything they could get their hands on. Isaac last saw his family in April 1944, when the ghetto gates closed behind them.”The Jews of Satu-Mare were among the first to be “resettled” to occupied Poland. Isaac’s family made the final journey together, gasping for air in the same cattle wagon. After the war, Isaac learned his family was sent to the gas chambers on arrival at Birkenau: “And a cousin of mine who came back said that they, the same day when they arrived, they were so tired, hungry, sick, and they chased them with the dogs. ‘Los, los, los.’ ‘Hurry up, hurry up.’” Murdered that day at Birkenau were Isaac’s father, two brothers, two sisters, and nieces Hana, 2 years old, and Rebecca, 4. Between May 15th and July 9th, 434,351 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eichmann later said he could jump into his grave a happy man having murdered millions of Jews.
Isaac avoided deportation to Poland. He was conscripted into Labor Battalion Satu-Mare, which consisted of 300 men. Only 160 would survive the war.
Labor Battalion Satu-Mare
Isaac says that after liquidating the ghetto in Satu-Mare, the Germans kept it guarded “because they had a lot of money probably hidden in it and all that stuff.” The murderers had to contend with elements in the Hungarian population that wanted its share of the loot. Isaac’s labor battalion was locked up in the ghetto and put to work searching for hidden treasures (gold, jewelry, dollars). Isaac says that he and his friends slipped away at night and returned to their former homes: “We was going at night, looking for things, you know. Everybody’s home see if he can find anything, but we didn’t find much. Everything that people hide already was digged up by the Germans – I mean the Hungarians.”
Rescue in Budapest
The battlion was dispatched to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, to remove the mountains of rubble left by the American bombers. Isaac tells us that Budapest was “bombed three times a day: in the early morning by the Russians, in the afternoon by the British, and in the evening by the Americans.” The Jews in the labor battalion were particularly vulnerable during the bombing raids. They weren’t allowed in air raid shelters. Isaac testifies, “A lot of us died when they were bombing, because when they were bombing Budapest, we wasn’t in the bunkers, we were outside. A lot were hit from the bombs, pieces of iron and stuff. They lose their legs, arms. There wasn’t anybody to heal us, you know. We were Jews.”
The transfer of Labor Battalion Satu-Mare to Budapest was a turning point. If Isaac had remained in Satu-Mare, he almost certainly would have ended up dead. In Budapest, by happenstance, he was rescued by Raoul Wallenberg, a 32 year old business and son of a Swedish banking family. He was sent to Budapest under the guise of a “diplomat” attached to the Swedish consulate. He therefore enjoyed diplomatic immunity. His mission was financed by the War Refugee Board. This U. S. government organization had recently been created by the Roosevelt administration, which was embarassed after the State Department’s deceitful policy on Jewish refugees was exposed. Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, with the considerable task of rescuing the 220,000 Jews who were still alive, Isaac being one of them.
Saved by Wallenberg
They trembled at the thought of deportation to Poland. They knew what happened to the Jews in the provinces. On July 9, 1944, the same day Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, international pressure forced Horthy to halt the deportations. Now Eichmann went after the Jews in the capital. In November, he ordered the Jews on a death march to Vienna. One hundred and twenty-four thousand Jews would survive the terrible last months of the war. Several foreign diplomats and religious officials tried to save Jews. Wallenberg is credited with saving the lives of 20,000. He and a cadre of local Jews handed out so-called Swedish passports (Schutz-pass) to imperiled Jews, conferring Swedish citizenship on people who obviously weren’t Swedish. The passport offered some protection (but not always enough). Wallenberg went further. He purchased buildings and made them “safe houses” by displaying the Swedish flag out front. Isaac survived in a “safe house.” He says “the Germans couldn’t put their feet inside.”
The Germans understood what Wallenberg was up to. They threatened him, shot at him, but never arrested him. They didn’t want diplomatic repercussions.After all, Sweden was a neutral country and provided Germany with iron ore. Wallenberg bribed people. He threatened them with retribution after the war. His had a commanding presence, a sharp tongue, and he was fearless. His colleague Per Augur observed that when Wallenberg showed up, the Hungarian Nazis (the Arrow Cross) were less eager “to ravage unhindered.”
One night in the summer of 1944, Isaac slipped away from the labor battalion. His cousin and “another guy” accompanied him. They knew about Wallenberg, having gotten word of him in a curious way: “They had leaflets thrown all over with the plane: ‘Anybody who can make it to the Wallenberg camp is gonna be saved.’” Isaac recalls catching a glimpse of Wallenberg: “I didn’t meet Wallenberg personally, to shake hands with him, but I saw him. He looked like an average, nice people – to us he looked very good! Because we know that he saved us, you know.”
Isaac was fortunate to escape Labor Battalion Satu-Mare when he did. Not long afterwards it was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, near Linz, Austria. Of the original 300 members of the battalion, 80 lived to see liberation. Isaac survived the last harrowing months of the war in one of Wallenberg’s “safe” houses. This was the period when the Hungarian Nazis (the Arrow Cross) rampaged through the city as if a medieval pogrom with machine guns. Jews were shot on the banks of the Danube River. On November 8, 1944, in freezing weather, Eichmann ordered the Jews in Budapest on a “death march” following the highway to Vienna. If he couldn’t put them on a transport to Birkenau, he could murder them this way. Isaac was spared the death march. He was ensconced in a “safe house” thanks to Wallenberg.
In the final days, the Hungarian Nazis intended to slaughter the Jews remaining in the ghetto. Isaac repeats a story he heard about Wallenberg confronting Eichmann: “And he told Eichmann himself that ‘Why don’t you give up? Don’t you see the Russians banging on our gates already? And if you gonna try to deport those people, I’m gonna see personally to it that you gonna be hung right in the square of Budapest.’ You know? That’s what he said.” In fact, Wallenberg confronted not Eichmann but a German general named Schmidthuber. This Schmidthuber was intimidated by Wallenberg’s threats and stopped the planned assault on the ghetto.
Isaac gives us a vivid account of the last months in Budapest and his liberation by the Russians: “I was so happy to see them that we went outside, hugging and kissing, you know. And they were screaming (in Russian), and that means, ‘Give me your watch.’ I took the watch off here and gave them my watch. ‘I’m glad to see you.’”
Isaac After the War
Isaac wanted to know if anyone in his family had survived. He returned to his hometown of Satu-Mare, “but I didn’t recognize it.”
Isaac remained in Satu-Mare for several months. His cousin limped home from Mauthausen. Isaac recalls. “His whole body was one rash.” Isaac and a few other survivors waited for loved ones to return from the camps: “We was getting almost like stones. Because we couldn’t think too much about it, what happened to them, because we had to support ourselves too. We looked where the next meal is gonna come from, or like next clothes, whatever.” No one in Isaac’s family showed up. “My family completely gone. I am the only one. We were five brothers, and two sisters, and my father. Of course, my mother died before.”
Isaac calculates that 300 relatives were murdered by the Nazis and their helpers. He lost faith in God: “Because everything that happened to us. If there is a God, if God could see that, so I don’t know if I will still believe in God or not.”
Isaac had hopes of reaching Palestine, then under British control. In a group of survivors he traveled illegally to Italy and found his way to a “Displaced Persons” camp on the Adriatic coast. The name of the town was Santa Maria del Lauca. It was here in an almost paradise-like setting that Isaac met Dora Zalmonovish. A survivor of Birkenau and Stutthof, she was alone in the world. The two had grown up in the same region: Dora in Carpatho-Ukraine and Isaac a short distance away in Transylvania. From Italy they tried several times to reach Palestine but the British always turned them back. The state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. Isaac and Dora were married that same month. “Big bargain,” she joked.
Coming to New Orleans
Dora and Isaac immigrated to the United States and arrived in New Orleans on May 17, 1950. Dora operated a dry cleaning establishment for many years. The war-time horrors left her unable to bear children. With another survivor couple, Isaac and Dora purchased an apartment complex in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb. They lived there until the end of their lives, much beloved by their tenants who were more like family members.
Isaac worked 57 years as a silver polisher at Adler’s Fine Jewelry on Canal Street in New Orleans. As exercise each morning before going to work, he walked around the French Quarter. Sometimes he stopped at Harrah’s Casino and enjoyed a free breakfast. Only towards the end of his career did Isaac ask for a raise. All those years he had felt fortunate to have a job and uncomfortable asking for more. After Isaac’s death, his work-place at Adler’s was preserved as a shrine to his memory.
Isaac says that in New Orleans he recovered his belief in God: “Matter of fact, when I came to this country, I joined a synagogue. I pay dues. Whenever I can, when somebody dies, I go visit them. I go pray with them.”
Isaac leaves us with these words: “My message is to try to live together with all nationalities. We are all brothers really. We all the children of God.”
Isaac and Dora’s apartment complex suffered minor damage at the hands of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Isaac was amazed at all the help that came their way. He never forgot the delicious meals provided free of charge by the nearby and quite famous restaurant .
Dora died on August 6, 2009. Five years later, on January 19, 2015, Isaac followed. They were born across the border from one another in a Jewish world that no longer exists, and are buried side by side one another in a suburb of New Orleans.
In April 1944, the Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David armband and patch. They were moved into ghettos and surrounded by barbed wire and ruthless, thieving guards. There was no chance of escape, or resistance. Horthy opposed ghettoization but to no avail.
The first transport of Jews left for Auschwitz-Birkeanu on May 15, 1944. During the next two months 147 cattle trains departed 55 Nazi ghettoes and carried 434,351 Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Four transports left daily, and each transport comprised forty-five box cars, seventy people (or so) to a box car, with a bucket for waste and another for water. By early summer 12,000 Jews were gassed every day at Birkenau, the main extermination center of the Auschwitz complex.
Wallenberg told Per Anger: “I’d never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing inside myself I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”
Wallenberg told Per Anger: “I’d never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing inside myself I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”