From Barbed Wire to Picket Fence: A Child Holocaust Survivor's Dreams and Adaptability

From Barbed Wire to Picket Fence: A Child Holocaust Survivor's Dreams and Adaptability

by Teresa Fischlowitz


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In the story of her life, Teresa Fischlowitz shares how she spent her seventh birthday on a train to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp; her family's rescue from that camp several months later; and the family's travel as refugees from Switzerland to Prague to Paris to Caracas, and finally to the United States.

Teresa went to seventeen schools in six languages on three continents by the time she graduated high school in Los Angeles.

After a brief career as an opera singer in New York Teresa taught elementary school for over 30 years in Los Angeles. In her retirement in San Diego she is an avid supporter of opera and classical music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491863947
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 02/26/2014
Pages: 114
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.27(d)

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A Child Holocaust Survivor's Dreams and Adaptability



Copyright © 2014 Teresa Fischlowitz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4918-6394-7



What I've written in this book is a collection of childhood memories, and a record of our family's moves in the 1940s and 1950s. Writing more than 65 years after the fact gives some possible distortion to memory, but I've done the best I can to separate my memory from what I'd been told. My memory is often in color, and the colors of my life are enriched by memory.

In 1938 the Munich Conference gave in to Hitler's demands that the Sudetenland, the western part of Czechoslovakia that was mostly ethnically German, be ceded to Germany. This began the breakup of Czechoslovakia. My parents saw the growing menace to Jews there and decided, by early 1940, to move to Budapest, Hungary, where other relatives were already living. {Photo #11}

As I look at this over 70 year old photo I am struck by the dark, sad expressions on my parents' faces. The light seems to have gone out of their eyes.

My earliest memory, that I actually recall, is being in an apartment building in Budapest, watching my father listen to our radio. The radio had a green dial, and the stronger the signal the brighter the green color on the dial. He listened at night to warnings about air raids that were coming over Hungary. My parents spoke Hungarian to me and my sister, and that is the first language I learned to speak and to read.

I think back to when and how I knew my grandparents. My father's parents had died about the time we moved from Prague to Budapest. My Ilkovics grandparents lived in the small border town of Sátoraljaújhely where grandfather Ilkovics was a vintner. He owned vineyards that produced grapes for local wine. I remember visiting them, probably by train, in the summers when I was four and five years old. My grandmother always gave me special treats, of food, and toys she and my grandfather made themselves. Looking back, I feel my memories of them have influenced how I want to be as a grandmother to my granddaughter today.

At age 5 I started lessons on the piano and learned to read music as well. We had a piano in our apartment and the teacher came there to teach me. I remember being in a piano recital at a public hall when I was six years old, in 1943. I also had started school by then, and my sister Susie was in a high school. Even at this early age I already needed glasses. {Photo #12}

On March 19, 1944, the Germans came into Hungary. They came for several different reasons, but mainly because their war against Russia was not going well. The German army, as well as many conscripted Hungarian soldiers, had been lost at the long siege of Stalingrad. Hungary had technically been neutral up until then, but under German influence. There had not been open discrimination against the Jews. After the Germans came into Budapest all Jews had to wear yellow stars, and Jews could no longer go to school. {Photo #13.} The stars in this photo were saved by my sister Susie and me. I still have the report card from school showing that going to school ended on March 19, 1944.

Life changed for us right away. We were living in a five-story apartment building, and there were daily air raids. I remember my mother teaching me to fold my clothes each night in the order I would put them on when we needed to go to the basement, putting my shoes on the bottom of the stack, then my dress, and my underwear on top.

I have a vivid memory of our leaving our apartment in a hurry one night because my father was told that the Nazis were looking for Jews. I was able to bring one favorite toy with me, and we spent the night at the shop of a non-Jewish furrier my father knew, where I slept on two large chairs that were pulled together.

Jews had a much harder time getting food. I remember going with my mother to cooking classes, where she learned how to use the scarce food to feed a family. I remember the food at these classes was much better, much tastier, than what we had at home. There was almost no meat in the daily markets but in the cooking class the women were taught how to make a little bit of meat go a long way, of course adding paprika and other Hungarian spices for special flavor.

Early in 1944 my father was able to join a group of wealthy Budapest Jews who were trying to be ransomed out of Hungary. The group was organized by Rudolf Kästner, a Hungarian Jew of Romanian background. There were secret discussions going on among Kästner, Himmler and Eichmann, the Nazi leaders in Hungary, and the secret Zionist underground, and ultimately the International Red Cross. The Nazis wanted 'Jeeps for Jews' as the German army was being pushed back on the Russian front, and they knew an invasion would come soon in Western Europe, but the Americans would not do any such trade.

My father had managed to bring much of the wealth he had made in Germany to Prague, to Kosice, and even to Budapest. We had Sevres porcelain, crystal chandeliers, fine china and silverware, and even my Mother's diamond rings. Many of the photos in this book were among the personal treasures saved, even buried beneath our apartment home, during the war. My parents managed to keep nearly all these furnishings, but my Father gave a lot of his wealth, including gold, to the group planning the ransom. I did not know this until long after we left Budapest.

On June 30, 1944 we joined a large group of Jews at the train station. The historical record shows we were allowed to bring only two small suitcases for each person in our group. We were put on a freight train, in cattle cars, and left Budapest. On my seventh birthday, July 6, 1944, we were going north past Austria into Germany. I remember we were allowed to get out of the train to relieve ourselves in the field. On one day I was in a field looking at some flowers when the train started to move. My mother screamed for me and I started running for the train. A man jumped down from the train, grabbed me, and ran back to the train and handed me up to my mother. He then jumped on the slowly moving train and I was saved!

After a few days we arrived at a camp, that we learned was Bergen-Belsen, in Northern Germany. There we were put in a special group, the men separated from women and children. I remember seeing my father only a few times in the next months, and always through a barbed wire fence, apart from the women and children. My mother, my sister Susie, and I were in one barracks, on three-level bunk beds. Each day we got a large kettle of thin soup and some bread as our main meal. Unlike Jews in other concentration camps our group, men, women and children, were allowed to keep our clothes and personal belongings we had brought with us from Budapest.

My mother had brought some personal things with her that she used to make daily life seem special for me. I remember her using her sewing box lid, covered in gold colored metal, where she carefully cut one piece of bread into six small squares and put a little dab of jam (another treasure she had brought from our Budapest home) on each square of bread. That was a special sweet treat for me in the middle of a German concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire.

Our group included many Budapest intellectuals and religious leaders. I do remember the families tried to have some schooling for the children in our special group. I remember a woman trying to teach us the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet by drawing in the dirt with a stick. There was no other schooling for the children during the fortunately less than six months we were there. But there was some attempt to keep track of the Jewish holidays. One of our group was an artist, who used one name, Israi, and he made several drawings of life for our group in the camp. {Photos #14 & #15.} He later gave many of his drawings to my father for his help in gaining our freedom.

In early December, when the German army was retreating in Western Europe, the negotiations to release the Hungarian Jews were concluded, the Germans getting food and medicine through the International Red Cross. On December 4, 1944 our special group of about 1,500 Hungarians were taken out of Bergen-Belsen and put on several trucks. We traveled a bit more than two days and nights, and were told to get out and walk. I remember my father holding my hand during this walk, something he hardly ever did in Budapest. He gave me some small red pills, telling me "these will make you strong." We walked almost all day near some mountains. My mother, always prepared for the unexpected, had made a big bow for my hair. I think she may have made it out of some torn undergarments, but I was wearing that bow in my hair when we arrived in Switzerland. Suddenly we were at the Swiss border! Once past the border everyone cheered. That was December 7, 1944. {Photo #16} In this photo my sister Susie and I are seen in the far left window of the new Swiss train.

In Switzerland our group was taken to what seemed to me like a castle. It was the Grand Hotel in Caux sur Montreux in the French speaking part of Switzerland. {Photo #17} We were able to eat wonderful Swiss food, including some foods I had never seen before. The Swiss and the International Red Cross had clothing for us, as we had so little of our own, coming from a concentration camp. I remember we were allowed to go to a large room in the hotel on different days, depending on the first letter of our family name. When it was the "R day" for Racz I recall finding new clothes for myself, all on my own. I felt so rich and fortunate! All four of us lived in one small hotel room. I can forever remember the smell of cooking onions, as my mother did the cooking permitted on an electric iron. {Photo #18} This photo clearly shows that even though we were free, having survived months in a concentration camp, my parents had been aged and scarred by the preceding 12 years.

Soon after, for the first time in my life I was separated from my mother. I was sent to an orphanage run by nuns, and my sister, then 17 years old, was sent to a German speaking camp for teenagers. Six weeks later was a school vacation and I was back with my family. I spoke French to my mother, and explained to her that I had to speak that way if I wanted to get anything to eat at the orphanage. That was my language number three!

I remember being together with my family when the war in Europe ended, on May 8, 1945. We were high on a hillside and watched colorful red balloons and red and white Swiss flags on all sides, celebrating the end of the war.



A few weeks later we were to be repatriated, to the country of our most recent passport. For my parents that meant Czechoslovakia, so we went to Prague, the capital city. I don't remember how we went to Prague, but I started school there, in the third grade. Everything seemed so new and strange, especially learning Czech, language number four!

While we lived in Prague many people in our family who had also managed to survive the Holocaust and the war joined us. My father went to Budapest to try to find family. Much reunification of families was due to the International Red Cross, the United Nations Relief agencies, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS.) My mother's brother, Emil Ilkovics, had left Hungary just before the war started in 1939, and managed to get to England. He joined the British Army and was put with other Czech refugees into a special Czech military unit that fought in North Africa under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery. {Photo #19} Uncle Emil must have done very well for himself during the war because he came to Prague as part of the British Occupation Army, wearing the uniform of a Colonel. Somehow he was able to get us a very fancy home that had been used by a German general, where we lived along with some other relatives who had survived the war. Uncle Emil lived in an elegant apartment where I remember his black tile bathroom, and the scarlet red wall in his large bedroom, furnished with Chinese style furniture.

When we were in Prague I remember my first boy friend, named Karel, who was called Kaja. He and I would play in the back yard, digging up potatoes, and then making a fire to bake them in the ground. I was about nine years old and I think that is the first time in my life I ever was able to play on my own without adult supervision! I also remember the food shortages. There was milk only for children, and I had to go every day after school to stand in a long line to get a small cup of milk that was just for me.

In Prague my mother had the idea that I needed what today we call Physical Education. She sent me every week to some kind of gymnasium where I had to wear special clothes for exercises. That was the first time in my life I realized that I was a bit chubby! This was also my first trip on a streetcar all on my own.

My father's niece Piry had also survived in a concentration camp, and she joined us in Prague, but her husband had been killed fighting on the Russian front. I remember Piry trying to teach me English, using some words, such as 'satchel,' that I later learned were of particular British usage. While we were in Prague Uncle Emil and Cousin Piry got married, probably in secret. Then Uncle Emil went AWOL from the British Army, and he and Piry managed to get to America.

Several other relatives who had survived joined us in Prague. My father's niece, Hedda Korach and her sister Kato lived through Auschwitz. My mother's sister Ella ("Ellu néni" in Hungarian for "Aunt Ella") also survived Auschwitz. Hedda and Ella had both lost their husbands during the war. Somehow Kato's husband, Willy Zucker, had survived a labor camp, and was re-united with us in Prague.

While we were in Prague my father traveled a lot. He went back to Budapest where he rescued many family valuables, including their Louis XV style wedding bedroom set that had literally been buried underneath the apartment building where we had lived. This bedroom set was with us in Prague, in Paris, and Caracas. My parents needed to sell many of those valuables in order to support our family in Caracas. The bedroom set stayed for years in Caracas with Ellu-néni. I was able to bring it to my Los Angeles home in the 1980s. {Photo #20}

My father also went to Switzerland, and I remember his coming back with special treats, including chocolate and oranges! I had never seen an orange before he brought a few from Switzerland.

In Prague I learned Czech. Because the Czechs felt the uncertain political situation in Europe, three times a week we had all afternoon lessons in Russian language.

"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow." Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946, Fulton, MO, USA.'

By late 1947 my father realized that Czechoslovakia would eventually come under Russian control. This time, unlike his complacency in 1932 Berlin, he knew we had to get out. Travel was somewhat restricted, but I had a serious eye problem: I was cross-eyed! We were able to get exit visas for three months to take me, a ten year-old girl, to Paris for eye surgery to correct that problem.

We packed up. Oh did we pack! In the middle of December 1947 we left with twenty-seven large trunks, holding all our family's possessions, including many valuables that had been buried in Budapest during the war as well as many furnishings we 'acquired' from the German general's home in Prague.

When the train came to the Czech border customs inspectors came on board. They asked if we had any valuables to declare. I spoke up in my little girl's voice. "I have my stamp collection." The inspector asked to see it, but I said "NO!" They said that if I didn't show them my stamps they would open all our suitcases to find them. My father said to me, in the sternest voice possible, "Show them your stamps." I did, and we were free to go on.

In Paris we stayed at Hotel George V that had been a very fancy well-known hotel before the war. My father's main purpose, our only purpose in being in Paris, was to get out of Europe. I was 10 years old and my sister Susie was 20. While in Paris we were joined by other family, including cousins Hedda Korach, and Kato and Willy Zucker. They had all managed to leave Prague. Hedda was about 31 and Kato a year or two older. Willy Zucker was a pharmacist, trained in Hungary.

I remember having one errand that I did almost every day. My job was to take Willy and Kato's baby daughter, Eva, and wheel her buggy in the Tuileries Gardens. As I look back on that I realize that having a baby in those uncertain times was a mark of optimism for an unknown future.

My father applied for visas for the United States, England, Canada, and many other countries. Even though we were refugees, displaced persons from both WWII, and refugees from a country about to be taken over by the communists, we did not rank high enough on those countries' immigration quotas to get in. The only country where we could get an entry visa was for Venezuela, and there only if we were Roman Catholic! Looking back on my parents' decision to accept that restriction I think it may have been one of the few times they purposely lied, but they did so in order to protect their family. Others in the family, including Ellu-néni and her son Tomas, Hedda, Willy and Kato Zucker and their baby Eva, also got visas and went straight to Caracas, Venezuela.

We finally left Europe in early 1948. I don't remember how we got to England, but records show that we sailed from Southampton, England, on the RMS Queen Mary, arriving in New York City on February 17, 1948. On the Queen Mary passenger list my father's name is shown as "Imrich Racz," and nationality "Slovakian."


Excerpted from FROM BARBED WIRE TO PICKET FENCE by TERESA FISCHLOWITZ. Copyright © 2014 Teresa Fischlowitz. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Photo 1, v,
CHAPTER 1, 1937-1945, 15,
CHAPTER 2, 1945-1951, 33,
CHAPTER 3, 1951-1955, 59,
CHAPTER 4, 1956-1963, 65,
CHAPTER 5, 1963-1968, 75,
CHAPTER 6, 1969-1979, 83,
CHAPTER 7, 1980-1985, 89,
CHAPTER 8, 1985 to the Present, 95,

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FROM BARBED WIRE TO PICKET FENCE: A Child Holocaust Survivor's Dreams and Adaptability 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was impressed with Teresa Fischlowitz's attitude toward life no matter what her circumstances were. She learned six languages out of necessity and survived persecution for her family's religion at a tender age. She was strong when others (probably including me) would be weak. The first chapter of the book tells much about life as a Jew during World War II. A later chapter tells what it is like to be an opera singer. Great read.