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Hello, old friend: Death march survivors reunite after 65 years

 
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Jack Rosenfeld and Amram Meir Photos by Jeff Karg

November 2009:

Jack Rosenfeld hasn’t seen or heard from his childhood friend Amram Meir since they arrived together at Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945. He has no idea if he is alive.

August 2010:

The two men reunite in Teaneck.

Rosenfeld and Meir recall their last days together as if they were yesterday.

“The march to Mauthausen started out at about 300 Jews, boys like me, about 15, 16, 17,” Meir said. “It grew. They brought in more [Jews from the Russian front] and at the end we were 6,000.”

As they walked, they passed a stream, which Rosenfeld recalled was filled with tallitot, tefillin, and bodies. Trudging through the rain, Meir fell to the ground, crying to his friends that he cannot go on.

“There was a point I said I can’t take it anymore,” he said. “It was raining, we didn’t get food, the lice…. It was terrible. I decided I’m finished, I don’t mind anymore. (They) were pushing me, supporting me.”

The two brothers — Jack and Marty Rosenfeld — picked up their friend and pushed him forward until they arrived at the camp.

“Once you sat down, they shot you in the head,” Rosenfeld said.

He remembered thinking that if he were to run into Meir’s parents after the war, he couldn’t stand to tell them that their son had died on the march.

“We dragged this boy,” he said. “He must’ve been about 50, 60 pounds, just skin and bone.”

Both agree that Meir would have been left behind to die alone if not for the Rosenfelds, who held him up for three days.

Remembering happier days

It was a far cry from the days of their youth, playing soccer in their Hungarian village of Hajdúdorog, but it was the last memory Rosenfeld had of his childhood friend.

“He disappeared,” Rosenfeld said Monday at his Teaneck home. “I’ve been looking for this guy for 65 years.”

That long search was about to come to an end, thanks to some sleuthing by Rosenfeld’s great-nephew. On Aug. 30, shortly after noon, the doorbell rang, and 81-year-old Amram Meir greeted his old friend.

The two men, who went through unbelievable horror together, stood face to face, reaching out to embrace one another. Tears and laughter filled Rosenfeld’s home that afternoon as he, his younger brother Joe, and other family members shared stories of some of the darkest days in history.

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Michael Rosenfeld, center, tracked down his great-uncle Jack Rosenfeld’s old friend, Amran Meir through the Internet.

“It was very emotional, and usually I don’t cry,” said 79-year-old Joe Rosenfeld, one of Jack’s younger brothers, who had also survived Mauthausen. “But when I saw (Meir) I was so overwhelmed I shed tears. I couldn’t believe I was crying.”

Joe Rosenfeld, who lives in Brooklyn, said that the five Rosenfeld children and Meir did almost everything together. When Germany invaded Hungary in 1944, the Rosenfelds and Meir’s family were eventually sent to Auschwitz, where most of Hungary’s Jews ended up.

A twist of fate diverted the two families’ train from the death camp, however, and they ended up in a labor camp in Vienna.

Joe, Max, and Abie Rosenfeld remained in Vienna; Jack, Marty, and Amram, who were older, were sent to the Russian front to dig tank traps. From July 1944 until April 1945, the three stayed at the front, with little to cover themselves and their only nourishment a daily plate of water and bread made from what Rosenfeld called sawdust.

In the spring of 1945, with the Russian army closing in, the death march to Mauthausen began. Shortly after arriving at the camp, the Rosenfelds found Meir’s father, who had been a doctor in Hajdúdorog and had delivered all of the family’s children. When liberation came later that year, the two families were sent to different hospitals.

While — almost miraculously — both families would survive the war intact, Jack and Amram would not see each other again for more than six decades.

The search

Now 82 and a widower with two grown children and a handful of grandchildren, Rosenfeld looks back at the Holocaust scarcely able to believe that humans had been so cruel. The moment Meir walked in on Monday was the culmination of a 65-year-long search that had taken Rosenfeld through the archives of Yad Vashem to a list of phone numbers compiled by a private investigator.

None of his research turned up Meir, though, and Rosenfeld feared he might never see his friend again.

“It’s a good feeling to see the person after so many years,” he said.

The five Rosenfeld brothers and their parents all survived the war, as did Meir’s parents, Morit and Leah, and his sisters, Naomi and Elizabeth.

“It’s one in a million” that everybody survived, Rosenfeld said.

While Meir and his family went to Israel after the war, Rosenfeld and his family came to America.

He and two of his brothers served in the armed forces during the Korean War, after which he received a degree in mechanical engineering. Rosenfeld then spent 30 years working in a factory in the garment center making zippers.

Occasionally, he would think about his friend. Not realizing that he now was called Amram Meir (his childhood name had been Imre Mayer), Rosenfeld checked the survivors’ registry through Yad Vashem for the old name.

Ironically, both Rosenfeld and Meir ended up providing testimony during the 1990s to Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, now the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute.

Ultimately, it took somebody much younger than the director of “Schindler’s List” to reunite the old friends.

The reunion

Last year, Michael Rosenfeld — Marty Rosenfeld’s grandson — decided to try to find his great-uncle’s old friend, at the behest of his grandmother.

“We never thought he would be able to do something like this,” said his mother, Elizabeth Rosenfeld of Lawrence, N.Y. “Lo and behold, it worked.”

After a week of searching the Internet, the now-15-year-old Michael turned up a family tree that led him to a niece, Ruth Szinai-Witty, whom he looked up on the social-networking site Facebook.

“There’s such a wealth of information on the Internet; that just amazes me,” said Michael, who shares his Hebrew name, Moshe, with his grandfather Marty, the brother who helped Jack Rosenfeld carry Meir through the death march. Marty Rosenfeld died in the early 1990s.

Betting on the uniqueness of Szinai-Witty’s name, Michael sent her a message in November asking if she was the niece of Imre Mayer, son of Morit and Leah Mayer. The next day she replied that yes, that was her family, and she sent Michael a phone number.

“It’s like a dream,” Elizabeth Rosenfeld said.

At the time, Michael did not realize that his grandfather had also had a relationship with Meir. When Michael told his great-uncle that he had tracked down his long-lost friend, his reaction was a mix of shock and euphoria, Michael said.

“I was delirious,” Jack Rosenfeld said. “When I called [Meir], the first thing he asked was, ‘Zelig? That’s you? The goalkeeper?’” (Rosenfeld had changed his name from Zelig to Jack when he arrived in the United States.)

Meir, who lives in Toronto, has a son, Gadi, who lives in Montclair with his wife and two children. They decided that the next time Meir visited them, he and Rosenfeld would have their reunion.

And on Monday, as Michael’s mother stood with her family, beaming with pride, and as Gadi Meir stood with his father, Michael saw the fruits of his labor.

“After all they went through, seeing them back together, I don’t even know the word to describe it,” Michael said. “But I feel very accomplished.”

Michael’s research also turned up a Swiss bank account in Meir’s father’s name, and, if there’s more than $100 in it, he’ll look into claiming it, Meir joked.

“He’s a hell of a kid,” said Jack Rosenfeld.

And there they sat in Jack Rosenfeld’s home, surrounded by children and grandchildren eager to see the people they knew only from stories.

“I put my life on the line for him,” Jack Rosenfeld said. “I wouldn’t have done that for anybody else. For him I did. Thank God he remained alive and brought in another generation.”

That generation grew up on stories of their parents’ experiences, and for them, the reunion was a bridge to their past and future.

“We always talked about the shochet’s son [Rosenfeld],” Gadi Meir said.

“I figured there might be emotion,” he continued. “When my father goes back to his country or to Israel or tells the story of the Holocaust, there’s always emotion. I’m trying to listen to these stories so I can tell my kids about some of the darker history we’ve had.”

“It’s very gratifying to see families reunited,” said Jack Rosenfeld’s daughter, Fern Oppenheim of Scarsdale, N.Y., “to see the generations that were produced, to see that the next generations are flourishing, and the children’s children.”

For decades after survivors arrived in this country, she said, they tried to assimilate because they felt that society viewed them as outsiders. In recent decades, perceptions about survivors have changed, she said.

“It’s gratifying that at this stage in their lives, there’s a recognition that they were heroic,” she said.

As Jack and Joe Rosenfeld enjoyed their reunion with Amram Meir, their children spoke about their responsibilities to their parents and their children.

“That whole shtetl life, that rich Jewish life, is very much lost,” said Gadi Meir. “I’ll be able to share some of the stories with my children.”

“The next generation has a debt to pay,” Oppenheim said. “If [our families] were fortunate enough to survive this, we have to adhere to our heritage and pass it along.”

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Fern Oppenheim, her father Jack Rosenfeld, Amram Meir, and his son, Gadi. “We always taked about the shochet’s son,” said Gadi Meir. “It’s very gratifying to see families reunited,” said Fern Oppenheim.

Resources to help trace Holocaust survivors

Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center
http://www.redcross.org/services/intl/holotrace/

The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation
http://college.usc.edu/vhi/

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museumhttp://www.ushmm.org/

Yad Vashem
http://yadvashem.org/

 
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