A Holocaust Survivor's Story
Ted Kessler, my father, was born April 9, 1929 in Nyirbator, Hungary. His given name was Tibor Keszler but he later changed it to Theodore Kessler when he emigrated to the United States.
Nyirbator is a small town 30 miles from Debrecen. In 1929 the population of the town was approximately 16,000 with a Jewish community of around 2300.
Ted had three sisters: Judith and Gizella were older and Marta was the
youngest in the family. His parents were Maria and Bela. Maria Bohm was born in
1898 to David and Regina Bohm. We are not sure if Regina is the correct name of
her mother. It might be Hani, there are no surviving records for verification.
Maria was one of nine children and grew up in a small town called Sanislau which
is located in Romania today.
Maria and Bela were married in 1920.
|Ted's father was a merchant in the Piece Goods business - he sold material to be used in making clothes. At one time, Ted's father Bela and his brother Morris had a larger Piece Goods store together. They had to sell the store during the Depression. Morris moved to Budapest and went into the printing business.|
When Ted was 4-5 years old, Bela got sick from complications from
Diabetes and had to be taken to a hospital in Debrecen. Ted went to live
with his Aunt Frieda in Fehergyarmat. He stayed there a short time, approximately
one to two months. Aunt Frieda was Maria's only relative in Hungary at that
The house in Nyirbator in which they lived was a 2 family house. The address was 14 Square street (Piac Ter) and it was located on the town square. Bela owned both units in the house. Bela’s mother lived in the second unit until her death and then it was rented out.
In Nyirbator, Ted attended a public elementary school which was supported by the Jewish Community. When it came time for high school his parents decided to pay for a private tutor. The teachers at the public high school were anti-semitic and gave the Jewish students a hard time. In order to receive credit for the high school courses, Ted was required to take academic tests in Miskolc and in Satu-Mare which were several hours away. No one they knew had a car. People still used horses and carriages for transportation. A few families rented a car together and a tutor from the school traveled with the children to these tests.
Before World War I, Sanislau and Nyirbator were in Hungary but after the Versailles Treaty, Sanislau became part of Romania. In 1940 Hitler gave Romania an ultimatum to accept the retrocession of northern Transylvania to Hungary and then Sanislau became part of Hungary again.
Hungary was active in the war against Russia, on the same side as Germany. The Hungarian government was anti-Semitic and sympathetic to the Germans. The government passed laws against the Jews. Laws were passed to limit the number of Jews that could attend the universities. Permits for Jews to own or operate business of various types were limited.
The Germans were satisfied that the Hungarians were suppressing the Jews and did not feel there was a need to deport them to the German concentration camps. This changed in March 1944.
The Hungarian Chief of State, Miklos Horthy, was called away to Berchtesgaden in Germany to meet with Hitler. Shortly after that, Germany occupied Hungary and Eichmann was sent to Hungary. Almost immediately the government changed. Laws were passed that Jews would have to wear yellow stars. A few weeks later, the Germans used the Hungarian Police (Gendarmerie) to collect the Jews and began deporting them.
The local leaders of the Jewish community were told to create lists of the names of the Jews and give them to the Hungarian authorities. They were told that they were going to be relocated to a work camp and they would only be allowed to keep what they could carry.
The Keszler family decided to dig up the floor and bury their silver, jewelry and other valuables. Ted's family could see the police coming from house to house collecting people and knew they were going to be next.
People were collected and taken to the local Synagogue. They stayed in the Synagogue overnight and then all the Jews were marched 35 Km to the “ghetto” – which amounted to a dozen barns that were part of an agricultural village called Simapuszta. They were there for a few weeks.
One morning, the Germans evacuated the village. The Jews were taken to the train station in Nyiregyhaza and put in cattle cars. There were no facilities on the train – no food, no water. The cars were very crowded and everyone had to stand. The trip took 2.5 days.
They arrived in Auschwitz which is near Krakow. The extermination machinery was in full swing and the camp was very busy. The chimneys of the crematoriums were smoking. Some of the people arriving at the camp heard that the Hungarian Jews were being gassed and burned. The train arrived at the station before noon but the people were made to wait almost a full day until the next morning when the train was unloaded.
Men and women were separated immediately. After that, each person was brought in front of a doctor in an SS uniform who would decide whether they would go to the left or the right. Ted and his father went to the left.
They were marched into a building for processing. Everyone was told to undress and get completely naked. Older prisoners would cut off all their body hair – head, chest and pubic hair. Everyone was given prison garb and then brought into barracks.
Ted saw his mother across a field in a neighboring barrack. She waved. Later they were relayed a message from her that his three sisters also made it into the camp. Ted never saw his mother or his sisters again.
Food was delivered in large vats served with a piece of bread. The food was completely inedible and was not enough to keep people alive. Auschwitz was a killing camp. Ted and Bela were lucky enough to get out in one week.
They were put into another cattle car and taken to Buchenwald. The trip took three days by train. They were unloaded at night and met by SS guards with dogs. Buchenwald was not a killing camp – it was a work camp. They picked out people who could work – and worked them to death. They were not fed enough but the food was slightly better than in Auschwitz.
Everyone was processed when they entered Buchenwald. Ted was given a number for identification - 56827. Ted and his father were taken to a barrack with approximately 700 people from Auschwitz. They stayed in that barrack for 10 days.
One morning, the Germans ordered everyone to come out of the barracks and line up outside. They were told when their number was called to step forward and form a line in the middle of the road. The numbers were called out in German - sechsundfuenfzig tausend achthundert fuenfundzwanzig. Bela's number was called. Most of the people were called to step forward but Ted's number was never called. Then the people that were selected were told to march away. The remaining prisoners were ordered back into the barracks.
Ted was separated from his father. At the time, Ted did not know where his father had gone or if he would return. He later found out that his father was sent to a labor camp at Zeiss. Fortunately, Bela was relatively healthy at the time, considering he was an insulin dependent diabetic and had not received any shots since he left Nyirbator.
Political prisoners ran Buchenwald. They decided to which barracks new prisoners would be assigned. Ted was taken to Barrack 8, which held mostly Russian children and some Hungarian Jewish children. There were people there from many different countries. Other barracks had homosexuals, political prisoners and criminals. Ted was in the camp from June to December. He was there on June 6th 1944 - D-Day. They heard about D-Day on German radio.
Ted developed a network of friends who were able to help him. He knew a Jewish Czech doctor who worked in block 50 where they experimented with animals. The doctor would give him some food to supplement his diet. The food was meat from animals that were being used for experiments. The doctor said it was safe to eat.
There were many interesting stories of the people who passed through Buchenwald. For example, in Denmark, the Danish police were not cooperating with the Germans. The Germans decided to bring the entire Copenhagen police force to Buchenwald as punishment. They stayed in special barracks and did not have to wear prisoner clothes. They occasionally received shipments of food from Denmark. Ted heard that they were very generous and he went by the barracks and he was given food – mostly dairy products – that included delicacies like chocolate.
Bela was transferred back to Buchenwald at the beginning of October 1944. The work at Zeiss and the Diabetes had taken their toll. He was emaciated and very weak – near death. Ted visited Bela and gave him his sweater and that was the last time he saw his father. Ted knew that Bela was part of a group of people who were scheduled to be shipped to Auschwitz for extermination.
The SS were not happy that the children at Buchenwald were being protected. The SS announced they were going to dissolve the camp and send the children to various locations. Berga was a sub-camp of Buchenwald. Ted was told if he went to Berga there would be people there that would look out for him. He decided to volunteer to go to Berga. He was shipped there on a cattle car on Dec 14th. He was in Berga from Dec 44 to Apr 45.
In Berga, Ted got a job in the kitchen that prepared food for the SS guards. He had to clean vats and pots but had limited access to food. In Jan or Feb 1945 he got sick and could not do the work and was transferred to a prison kitchen. There he was assigned to peel potatoes.
On April 11, 1945, Ted heard that Buchenwald was liberated. The next day the prisoners of Berga were taken on a death march away from the advancing Allied troops. People had to sleep outside or in barns. Prisoners who were caught stealing food from town were hung on the spot. Ted witnessed an SS officer hanging a prisoner. The officer laughed at Ted and said “you are going to be next."
This was the turning point for him. The next day he decided to escape. By this time the guards did not chase prisoners or shoot at them. At one point the march went through a forest and some people ran away. When Ted saw people running, he took the opportunity and ran for his life. He started off running with a friend from the camp but they were quickly separated. He hid alone in the forest for as long as he could. When he could stand it no more he started walking.
He met two Dutch Jewish men that spoke German well. One still had striped prison pants. He took them off and started walking in his long johns. They knew they would be interrogated by the Germans and would have to pass a test. They made up a story that they were part of a group of free workers and were lost. They went into a nearby town and succeeded in convincing the Germans to allow them to be sent to a German refugee site located in a school.
Ted was also allowed to go to this German refugee center. At this center Ted met an older German woman and her son. He convinced them that he was a Hungarian worker brought to Germany and needed to travel back to Hungary. They were from the town of Plauen located in Saxony and agreed that Ted could travel with them to Plauen.
On the road to Plauen they needed a place to sleep at nightfall. They were allowed to sleep at someone’s house along the road. It was the first time Ted had slept on a bed with white sheets since Nyirbator. In the morning he saw lice on the bed and realized that he had lice in his hair and probably had been infected for a long time.
When he reached the town of Auerbach he was separated from the German woman and her son. He heard that a group of Germans were planning to return to their homes on the other side of the front lines. He volunteered to go with them.
Together they tried to cross into the “American zone” between Auerbach and Treuen. The Americans turned back the group of Germans from the border. Ted decided to separate from the group and try to cross by himself. He approached the soldiers waving a dirty handkerchief. When they approached him he cried and mentioned Buchenwald. The soldiers took him to the American headquarters in Treuen.
In Treuen, Ted was interrogated by an American GI who spoke German. They were satisfied that he was an escaped Jewish prisoner from Hungary.
An American soldier took him to the Burgermeister office. The soldier reached into his desk and took all the ration cards from the drawer and gave them to Ted. The soldier left Ted in the care of the Burgermeister and he was then directed to a school house to stay with other refugees.
A few days later he left the school house and walked down the road and found an American company. He went to the kitchen and told them he was hungry and they fed him.
Ted met a Jewish soldier who spoke Yiddish. The soldier helped him find a place to stay and food to eat. Soldiers in the company took a liking to him and let him hang around. When the company left to go to another town deeper into Germany Ted decided to get off the truck and not continue with the soldiers but instead to go the other way toward Hungary.
Ted went from Reichenbach to Ranchmuehle, near Plauen. A group of women, maybe 700, were liberated and were taken there. Many were Hungarian women, possibly as many as 300. The rest were from several countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland.
A few weeks later was May 8, 1945 - VE Day – Victory in Europe. After the war was over, everyone decided to leave and head home. The Czech and Polish governments sent trucks and buses to pick up their people. The Hungarians had to find their own way home.
They needed to hitch hike on trains and trucks. Ted joined a party of six - 5 girls and Ted. They traveled together to Linz, Austria. A woman let them stay in her apartment in Urfahr, a section of Linz that was slated to be part of the Russian zone. The apartment had been emptied and it seemed that she was fleeing from the Russians. They stayed in the empty apartment for 2-3 weeks.
Ted figured out that the best way to get home was to get to a train that could take them to the border of Austria and Hungary. They succeeded in getting to a town on the border where Ted met the Kramers from Nyirbator who had owned a mechanical shop. Many people were in a similiar situation and were all trying to get home. At this point Ted parted company with the 5 girls and somehow they all found their own way to Budapest.
In Budapest, the Joint Distribution Committee gave $10 to every Jewish survivor – which was a lot of money in 1945. Ted had an Aunt who lived in Budapest. He looked her up but found that she was killed – most likely in a death march out of the city. He did meet some of his cousins, Emil and Marcha. They told him that his family had not yet returned. They also told him that some of his other family in Romania - Sandor, Imre and others - had returned.
Ted took a train from Budapest to Nyirbator. Ted could hear women screaming from the other cars on the train. Later, he was told that some Russian soldiers were raping women on the train. At that time, Hungary was occupied by Russia.
Ted did make it back to Nyirbator and went to his family home. There was a big hole in the middle of the room where people had dug up the silver and the valuables his family had hidden. The entire house had been emptied - the closets, the dressers, the kitchen cabinets were all empty. The bed was bare of sheets and pillows. The family had had a library of books. All of the books were stolen except for some of the Jewish books.
Ted stayed in Nyirbator for a week or so with cousins of Bela’s – Juliska and her sister Gilzella’s daughter Vera. At the time he did not feel very close to these relatives. He remembered that he had heard from his cousins in Budapest that his other relatives on his mother's side had come back to Sanislau and Nagyvarad.
Ted decided that it was only 35 Km to Sanislau and that he would walk there. He had to cross into Romania and was stopped by the border guards. He tried to go around the guard house but got lost and was caught. They interrogated him and he stayed the night in the guard house. The next day he told them he was going to visit his family, the Bohms, in Sanislau and they let him go.
During the war, Sandor was in a labor battalion and was sent to Russia to dig foxholes under the Hungarian command. Imre was also inducted into the labor battalion but stayed in Nagyvarad. Sandor was Ted's and Imre’s uncle and Imre was living with Sandor after Imre’s parents were sent to Auschwitz and never returned. Imre’s brother Moshe had gone to Palestine before the war.
Ted lived with Sandor for almost a year. Sandor’s first wife and his son were killed at Auschwitz. Sandor married his second wife Duci who had a daughter Lucy from a previous marriage. Sandor and Duci also had a daughter together, Julie. Later, they all to the United States. Lucy moved to New York, married Mel Shay and had a daughter Elissa. Julie moved to Silver Springs, MD and lives there today with her husband Jacob Schoor.
Ted did not get along with his new Aunt, Duci. He decided in Aug 1946 that he wanted to go to the US. He traveled back through Hungary and Austria to Germany to get to the American zone. He registered at a Displaced Persons camp in Pocking, Germany. He was on a waiting list to go the US but there was a low quota for Hungarians.
The United States
Finally in Nov 1947 all the paperwork was in order and Ted was allowed to emigrate to the United States. He traveled by train with other immigrants to Bremen and then boarded an American Troop ship, the S.S. Marine Flasher, which was being used to transport immigrants to New York. The Atlantic voyage took 13 days from Nov 29, 1947 to Dec 12, 1947. When he emigrated to the US he changed his name from Tibor Keszler to Theodore Kessler.
S.S. Marine Flasher
When Ted arrived in New York he lived with his uncle Lou Bernstein on 82nd Street in Brooklyn. Lou had a supermarket on 86th street. Ted worked in the supermarket for $35 a week.
Lou Bernstein’s real name was Endre Bohm. He had to leave Romania because he was attacked by a Romanian soldier and killed him. A Russian emigre (Lou Bernstein) gave him his papers and Endre assumed Lou's identity and then traveled to the US.
Ted decided that if he would join a union he could get $65 per week at a different supermarket instead of $35 at his uncle's store. He moved out and got his own room in Brooklyn on Glenwood road and did just that.
Soon he was doing well enough to buy an old car, a 1939 LaSalle for $400. They didn’t make new cars during the war. Ted went on a road trip to Canada to visit Imre and his wife Hedy who had emigrated to Toronto.
In the Bronx, Ted shared an apartment on Morris Ave with Irving, a friend from the Army. Irving met a girl, got married, moved out and left Ted the apartment. It was rent controlled at $58.95. Later, he met Leo Malek, a friend from the DP camp, on a subway and he moved in with Ted. They lived together for a few years.
In 1997, Ted returned to Europe to visit Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Berga and Stutthof. He was able to retrace the steps of his journey.
Ted's story has been recorded as part of the Shoah project .
Today, Ted is retired and living on Long Island. He now has 5 young grandchildren and his family is doing well.
(click on the links in bold)
Family records from the Yad Vashem
Documents from Buchenwald, Arolsen
The Bohm Family Tree
Marine Flasher Passenger List
S.S. Marine Flasher Information
The Shoah project
The G.I. Bill