Louise and Lazar Farkas
As anti-Semitism in German-occupied countries grew, Lazar was pressed into forced labor. Working from early morning to late night, he helped build bunkers. Heavy hauling jobs that would normally be performed with horses were consigned entirely to humans. The one silver lining was that, unlike the prisoners in extermination camps, these workers weren’t systematically killed. “They weren’t nice to us,” says Lazar, “but there was no gas chambers.”
Louise was about 20 when she was deported to Auschwitz: “A woman that was in power at the time liked my shoes,” says Louise, “and she took them and I had no shoes. I was barefoot. It was cold, northern climate there: it’s cold in the fall. We struggled.”
Gas chambers were a terrifyingly real presence in Auschwitz. “We knew we are to be destroyed,” says Louise. She kept a protective eye over her sister who was five years younger—and not always inclined to listen to her older sibling. “We had lost our parents, and I felt responsible for her,’ says Louise. “We had no one. … There were several selections, but I held onto her. I didn’t let go. Even for—if it cost my life. Never let go of her. We lost the rest of the family. Five children—I was the oldest. Two of us survived. … There were times that she would just sit down and she wouldn’t cooperate. She was young and didn’t understand what goes on. I dragged her. It was tough.”
But the tides were turning against Germany, and security was unraveling. “We walked out of the camp. Just simply,” says Louise of her and her sister’s escape. “We had no place to go and no money and no food. We went from country to country from there.“
Lazar also managed to run away from his forced labor. “I wound up somewhere in Poland, I don’t know where,“ he says. For a time he hid in a farmer’s hay loft, but when the farmer heard that others had been punished for harboring Jews, he asked Lazar to leave. Lazar lived in the forest and met up with the Czechoslovakian army. He joined the army as a volunteer and ended up stationed in his hometown. He learned that people were escaping from the camps and wanted to look for Louise, so he found a bean that inflamed his eyes, making them appear as if he had trachoma, and presented himself to an officer who sent him to a doctor. The doctor recognized the irritation from the berry but understood. “He knew what I wanted to do,” says Lazar, “that I want to get, so he gave me a paper that I’m free from the army.”
Lazar left messages for Louise that he was looking for her. They crossed the border in opposite directions on the same night, just missing each other. Eventually, Lazar found Louise and the two were soon married. His uncle in America was able to arrange for their immigration, and they settled in Brooklyn. (Louise’s sister wasn’t able to leave until a year later). Both spoke some English, but Lazar found getting a job challenging. One day, when Lazar was sitting on a bench, someone who knew him passed by. The two started talking, and the friend offered Lazar a job in the grocery business.