Survivor STORY

“We, the survivors, owe a debt to those who were murdered in the Holocaust. We can repay it only when we give meaning to their deaths by how we live our lives.”

Imagine wearing two right shoes because your left shoe was stolen. Imagine being separated from your mother and siblings and knowing that you would never see them again. Imagine seeing death all around you, and in spite of all this still having hope. This is Eugen’s legacy.

Eugen Schoenfeld was born on November 8, 1925, in what was then Munkacs, Czechoslovakia. For the next eighteen years he ( where) he lived with his parents, his brother Benjamin, and his sister Esther. Eugen’s father owned a (small shop) book store serving the city with both school books and supplies but most importantly novels and other books with intellectual topics. The family lived a normal life until 1938, when Hungary, an ally of the Nazis, annexed Munkacs and other portions of Czechoslovakia. Immediately, the Hungarians passed a large number of anti-Jewish laws, including laws limiting the (percent of stores that could be owned by Jews) number of Jewish merchants who could own businesses. (A few years later the same laws totally excluded Jews from attending university.) The same laws also limited the number of Jewish students who could attend college. As a result, Eugen was unable to go to college when he graduated from high school, even though he desperately (wished to pursue his goal in medicine.) wanted to do so. Up until then, Eugen had received an excellent education, and at age eighteen spoke German, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and even some English.

The difficult times only got worse. In 1944, the Nazis came to Hungary, and soon all of the Jews in Munkacs were roughly rounded up and imprisoned in an empty brick factory. There, they anxiously awaited their fate until one day, (without warning, they were again—redundant rounded up and) they were forced onto a transport train which ended in Auschwitz. Eugen remembers that his mother cried because she feared that her children would be killed before they had had the chance to really live their lives. The train carried them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. Located in Poland, Auschwitz was the largest and most notorious concentration camp built by the Nazis.

Upon arrival in Auschwitz, the Nazis forced all the people on Eugen’s train to line up for inspection. Medical doctors -- among them the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, “the angel of death" -- reviewed each person as they passed before them. Those whom Mengele sent to the right were deemed fit for slave labor and thus were permitted to live a while longer; those sent to the left were taken directly to the gas chambers and death. Eugen’s mother, brother, and sister were sent to the left and murdered. Only Eugen and his father were sent to the right.

Eugen and the others (selected to work doesn’t belong ) were ordered to undress (leave their clothes in piles they were permitted to keep their shoes. Then they were ready for delousing and showers. Eugen carefully placed his shoes (and clothes) where he could find them, but when (Eugen) he returned (to the spot,) instead of finding (the pair of shoes he left there) [one right shoe and one left shoe ---omit] , he only found two right shoes. When he asked for another pair, a Nazi officer hit him. And so Eugen ended up with two mismatched right shoes. Eugen knew that he could not long survive the brutal conditions at Auschwitz-Birkenau without a good pair of shoes. Eventually, he found a man with two left shoes, one of which was Eugen’s, and traded shoes. Eugen’s life was momentarily spared by this lucky encounter.

While in the camps, Eugen and his father discussed the future and what they would do once the war was over. Young, alert and optimistic, Eugen dreamt of traveling the world. The expectation of freedom shared by father and son gave each great hope.

Sadly, his first trip away from Auschwitz was not toward freedom. Instead, Eugen and his father were sent to Warsaw, the capital of Poland, to clean up the destruction left after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 and the subsequent city of Warsaw uprising of 1944.

In August of 1944, the Nazis forced Eugen and other Jewish prisoners to undertake a 70-mile march to a train that would take them to the concentration camp of Dachau in Germany. They asked if anyone needed transportation, a trick (designed) to weed out the sick and weak. Eugen knew better than to accept such an offer, and when a friend of his nearly stepped forward he stopped him. Eugen's instincts were right; all those who stepped forward were shot.

On this death march, as these long, brutal marches at the end of the war came to be called, many people died from starvation, dehydration or physical brutality. By the time Eugen’s group reached its destination, one-third of the prisoners had died. At Muhldorf –Wald Lager, a subsidiary of Dachau, Eugen was assigned to carry huge bags of cement to the mixer. Most of the time, he feared being shot so much that he was able to gather enough strength to carry the heavy bags. One day, however, too hungry and weak to go on, Eugen began to sway under the immense weight of the cement. Being surrounded by so much death for so long, he no longer feared it, but before he collapsed a Nazi officer took the bag off his back and offered him a slice of bread. This completely unexpected act of kindness reinforced what he had always known – “that I should not judge people as a group but as individuals."

In 1945, when the American soldiers liberated Dachau, Eugen could talk to them since he knew some English. While talking to (the lieutenant the chief capo of the camp passed by) [ one shocked soldier], Eugen ( informed the lieutenant that this capo was) ---( described --) a particularly evil Nazi guard who had beaten and killed many prisoners. [When they saw the guard walking towards them,] the American officer [soldier] gave Eugen his gun and told him that he could (shoot the capo and nothing would happen to him) [ omit ---not be punished for killing the guard] However, despite all the cruelty he had endured and all the death he had witnessed, Eugen could not commit murder. He returned the gun.

When the war ended, Eugen and his father returned to Munkacs. The store that his father had owned before the war had miraculously survived and so his father decided to stay. Eugen realized that there was no future for him in Europe, and wanted to come to the United States. In 1946, he was offered a scholarship to Columbia University in 1946, and by 1948 he had received the necessary papers allowing him to come to this country. Eugen attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied sociology. After that he earned a doctorate degree in sociology from Southern Illinois University.

While in St. Louis, Eugen met his wife, Jean. They have four daughters and six grandsons, and great-grand children all living in Atlanta. Eugen served on the faculty at Georgia State University from 1970 to 1995, and was chair of the sociology department for sixteen years. Although the past still haunts him, he has been able to pursue his dreams of education and travel. Eugen has been all over the world, giving lectures on sociology and on the Holocaust. He still feels that he has a lot to teach others.

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Eugen Schoenfeld