“My message is to try to live together with all nationalities.
We are all brothers really. We all the children of God.”
- Isaac Niederman
Isaac Niederman was born on May 6, 1923, at Satu-Mare in the Transylvanian region of newly independent Romania, a short distance from Sighet where the writer and philosopher Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 (the two grew up in similar circumstances, their lives devoted to family and religion).
Before the First World War ended in 1918, the Jews of Transylvania were loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were devoted to Kaiser Franz Josef whom they considered benevolent ruler. This was an age when Jews received (relative) equality before the war. The Kaiser’s portrait held a prominent place in many Jewish homes, together with a portrait of Theodore Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.
Isaac’s grandfather Josef Leopold Niederman served proudly in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Isaac grew up listening to stories about the hardships of war and the glorious past under the benevolent Habsburgs. “The children were Romanian,” Isaac explains in his documentary, and “our fathers were all Hungarians.” Their parents were raised in the old Habsburg Empire, and murdered by the generation that followed it.
Isaac’s family was religious. He attended services at the synagogue twice a day and three times on Saturday. His parents were Jakob and Hana. His father and Uncles Abraham, Hirsch, and Bernard (Berl) operated the family’s wine business, called “Berkovich-Niederman.” Transylvania had “a lot of grapes,” Isaac says, and “good wines.” His family had lived in Satu-Mare for four or five generations. The business had been in family hands for three generations. Isaac had four brothers: Bernard (printer of Jewish literature); Moses (excellent in math); Karl (teacher and gifted painter); and Herschel (“the little one”). Isaac’s two sisters were Rachel and Miriam. Rachel was the older one. She and her husband Chastkel had two infant daughters: Rebecca was born in 1940, and Hana in 1942. Isaac’s youngest sister Miriam was born in 1932. All would be deported and gassed at Auschwitz in 1944. Isaac last saw his family when the Nazis created the ghetto in April of that year.
In the documentary Isaac tells us that anti-Semitism was intense before the war: “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, leader of the Hungarian government, liked to say that he was the “first” anti-Semite in Hungary. He came to power in 1920, after crushing an attempted communist take-over by Bela Kun, whose Jewish origin was emphasized by the reactionary forces. Horthy established the first quotas limiting Jewish participation in universities and in the economy. Reflecting the popular stereotype of the day, he linked Jews with communism, which so many Hungarians feared. He also linked Jews with capitalism and accused them of exploitation. He complained that “every factory” and bank in Jewish hands was “intolerable.” His government was allied to Nazi Germany and issued decree after decree against the Jewish community, stripping it of property, citizenship, and dignity. Prior to the outbreak of war the atmosphere in Hungary, as in many European countries, was intensely anti-Semitic. Isaac observes: “I came up under anti-Semitic country, whether it was Romania or it was Hungary.”
Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and three days later England and France declared war on Germany. Hungary shared in the spoils of Nazi aggression: Romania was forced to hand over much coveted (northern) Transylvania. Hungarian soldiers beat and robbed Jews. Isaac, who was seventeen, describes the day when Hungarian soldiers marched into Satu-Mare: “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 who weren’t Romanian citizens were expelled. Many were sent back to a bleak future in their native Poland. Jews in Romania were incrementally stripped of their property. Greed accompanied murder every step of the way. Isaac’s family lost its business and was destitute. Jews were concentrated in designated neighborhoods, a precursor to the ghettos.
Hitler unleashed his armies against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Isaac’s brothers Karl and Bernard were conscripted into a “labor battalion” attached to the Hungarian army fighting side by side with the Germans (and Romanians, Finns, Italians, Spaniards…). Isaac was too young to be conscripted and was spared the fate that awaited his brothers. Treated unmercifully by the Hungarian military, they both perished in Ukraine. Karl, the artist, died of pneumonia. Bernard, the printer, also met a bitter end. Isaac recounts how his father learned what happened to Bernard: a Hungarian guard tried to make Isaac’s father pay for the information but finally relented: “‘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.”
After much suffering Isaac’s mother 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 the rest of European Jewry was being murdered in “the east,” the Jews of Hungary lived in relative peace and almost total ignorance of what was happening.
Life was grim for the Hungarian Jews but it didn’t involve mass murder. Not yet. Rumors about atrocities in Poland circulated but were dismissed. Many Jews, particularly in rural towns and villages, didn’t have the benefit of hearing rumors. Nobody imagined gas chambers, even if they had heard of them. By 1944 the rest of the world had plenty of information about the Holocaust, but the majority of Jews of Hungary, including Isaac, knew nothing.
Hitler didn’t overlook the Jews in Hungary, the last intact Jewish community in Europe, and was determined to murder them. In 1943-‘44 the Hungarian government twice refused German demands to deport the Jews. It knew what deportation meant and drew the line at murder. Horthy was summoned to a personal meeting with Hitler and forced to accept a new (pro-Nazi) government. Horthy had no choice: “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.”
As the Red Army approached the eastern border of Hungary in the winter of 1944, the German army occupied Hungary in a lightning operation. SS officer Adolf Eichmann and his well-practiced “commando” of killers arrived in Budapest on March 19, 1944 (Eichmann’s birthday, incidentally), and began organizing the “evacuation” of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. An Austrian from Linz, Eichmann played a leading role in the expropriation and immigration of Jews before the war and their expropriation and deportation to the gas chambers during the war.
Hungarian Jews outside gas chamber
The Nazis were assisted by many collaborators – robbers and killers in one. The collaborators included the Hungarian police, the Hungarian civil service, and ordinary citizens who took advantage of the misfortune of the Jews and robbed them at every opportunity. In April 1944 the Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David armband and patch. They were moved into ghettoes 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.
The Jews of Satu-Mare were among the first to be deported. Isaac’s family made the final trip together, in the same cattle wagon. Isaac learned that they were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival: “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.’” The victims included Isaac’s father, two of his brothers, his two sisters, his brother-in-law, and his two nieces Hana, two years old, and Rebecca, four.
Isaac avoided deportation to Poland because he was young and healthy and useful to the Hungarians as a forced laborer. In the spring of 1944 he was conscripted into a “labor battalion” named “Labor Battalion Satu-Mare.” Isaac says that after liquidating the ghetto in Satu-Mare the Germans kept it surrounded “because they had a lot of money probably hidden in it and all that stuff.” The German murderers had to contend with the Hungarian population which wanted its share of the loot. Isaac says that his “labor battalion” was assigned to the ghetto and put to work scavenging the ruins for hidden treasures (gold, jewelry, dollars): “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.”
Isaac’s “labor battalion” was removed from the ghetto and dispatched to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, to remove the mountains of rubble left by the Allied bombing raids. 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.” Members of the “labor battalion” were particularly vulnerable during the bombing raids: “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.”
If Isaac had remained in Satu-Mare, he almost certainly would have perished. Instead he ended up in Budapest where, by quirk of circumstance, he was saved by the remarkable Raoul Wallenberg. He arrived in the capital on July 9, 1944, with the goal of rescuing the last Jews of Hungary.
Wallenberg in Budapest
Wallenberg, a thirty-two year old businessman and son of a Swedish banking family, was sent to Hungary under the guise of a “diplomat” attached to the Swedish consulate by the War Refugee Board. This U. S. government organization was (reluctantly) established by the Roosevelt administration in 1944, after the deceit and inaction of the U. S. State Department on Jewish rescue was exposed.
International pressure forced Horthy to halt the deportations on July 9, 1944, by coincidence the same day that Wallenberg arrived in Budapest. Two hundred thousand Jews remained in Budapest, trembling at the thought of what awaited them, knowing well what had happened to the Jews in the provinces. One hundred and twenty-four thousand Jews in Budapest survived the war. Wallenberg was credited with saving the lives of 20,000. How did he do it?
Sweden was a neutral country and provided Germany with valuable iron ore. The Germans didn’t want to jeopardize this relationship and chose to respect diplomatic niceties. Wallenberg, under the guise of a diplomat attached to the Swedish consulate, took advantage of a diplomatic “loophole.” Assisted by a group of Jewish assistants, he distributed fake Swedish passports” (“Schutz-pass”) to anybody Jewish, conferring Swedish citizenship on people who obviously weren’t Swedish. Wallenberg also provided “safe houses” that were protected by the Swedish flag and, as Isaac tells us, “the Germans couldn’t put their feet inside.”
The Germans realized what Wallenberg was doing and threatened him (and shot at him) but didn’t arrest him. They didn’t want any diplomatic repercussions. Some were happy to take bribes and others were influenced by Wallenberg’s threats of punishment after the war. Still others were awed by his commanding presence and sharp tongue. His colleague Per Augur noticed that Wallenberg’s very presence made the Hungarian Nazis (the Arrow Cross) less eager “to ravage unhindered.”
Under cover of darkness Isaac and his cousin together with “another guy” escaped from the “labor battalion.” Isaac says that they had heard about Wallenberg: “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.”
One hundred and fifty members of the “Labor Battalion Satu-Mare” were transported to Mauthausen concentration camp, near Linz, Austria. They suffered from the bitter cold and the inhumane guards. Twenty survived the war. Of the original three hundred members of “Labor Battalion Satu-Mare,” eighty lived to see liberation.
Isaac survived the last harrowing months of the war in one of Wallenberg’s “safe” houses. During several months the Hungarian Nazis (the Arrow Cross) rampaged through the city and slaughtered Jews, shooting many on the banks of the Danube River. On November 8, 1944, Eichmann ordered a “death march” along the highway from Budapest to Vienna. This was an effort to exterminate 70,000 Jews who had not been sent to Auschwitz. Isaac was spared this ordeal. He was safely ensconced in a “safe house” thanks to Wallenberg.
In the final hour of the ghetto the Arrow Cross made plans to murder all of its inhabitants. 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. He was sufficiently intimidated by Wallenberg’s threats and stopped that planned assault on the ghetto.
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.”
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.’”
Wallenberg presented himself to the Russians and promptly disappeared into the Soviet gulag (prison system). He wasn’t heard from again. The man who had saved so many was unable to save himself. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery. He was one of countless people who were arrested by the Soviets and disappeared without a trace. Yad Vashem recognized Wallenberg as a Righteous Gentile in 1986.
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.” His house was in ruins. He 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. Isaac says, “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 estimates that three hundred relatives were murdered by the Nazis and their helpers. He lost his 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 remained in Satu-Mare for several months. His cousin limped home from Mauthausen. Isaac recalls. “His whole body was one rash.” Hungary was firmly in the grip of the Russians and would be exploited for the next forty-five years, suffering the fate of all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe who were liberated by the Red Army.
Isaac had hopes of reaching Palestine, then under British control. With a group of survivors he traveled illegally to Italy and found his way to a “Displaced Persons” camp in the town of Santa Maria del Lauca on the Adriatic coast. It was here that he met Dora. She was a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Stutthof and lost almost everyone in her family. Isaac and Dora tried several times to reach Palestine but were turned back by the British. The state of Israel was established in May 1948.
Dora and Isaac Niederman’s wedding
Isaac and Dora were married that same month. “Big bargain,” she joked. By that time the couple had applied for immigration to the United States.
Isaac Niederman in New Orleans in 1950s
They arrived in New Orleans in 1950. Isaac maintains that he renewed 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.”
Dora operated a dry cleaning establishment. Owing to her nightmarish experiences during the war, she was unable to bear children. Isaac spent his entire career working as a silversmith at a jewelry store.
He retired after fifty-seven years. In his documentary offers this advice: “My message is to try to live together with all nationalities. We are all brothers really. We all the children of God.”
Issac Niederman at apartment complex ca. 2000
With another survivor couple, Isaac and Dora purchased an apartment complex and lived there for the rest of their lives. They suffered minor damage when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005.
Dora died on August 6, 2009. Five years later, on January 19, 2015, Isaac followed her.