March 28, 2013
"Sorry, children. I’m not going to jeopardize my life for your father’s money.” The Christian forester smuggling three Jewish children across the border from Poland to Slovakia had stopped abruptly, wished them luck and told them to keep walking. But Gloria Ungar — then Gitta Nagel — gripped his arm, promising that her father would make him very rich if he continued. She, her younger brother Nathan and her cousin were wending their way through a pitch-black forest. “It was terrifying,” Gloria recalled; she knew they wouldn’t make it alone. Her cousin had broken her ankle, and Nathan was crying that he couldn’t walk anymore. Plus the Germans were scanning the forest with floodlights, siccing attack dogs and then shooting whenever they saw a shadow. The children threw themselves against trees whenever the floodlights came near.
Despite his fears, the forester relented and led the children to the Slovakian border where a farmer met them and took them by wagon to the small town of Bardejov. There, Gloria and Nathan reunited with their parents and older brother, Jack (Yankel). “It was unbelievable to meet them again,” Gloria said, “but also sad, because of all the relatives still left behind.” It was spring 1941, and Gloria was 10.
Born Sept. 9, 1930, in Krosno, Poland, to Esther and Abisz Nagel, Gloria had one older brother and two younger ones. Their grandmother lived with them.
Her father was a successful businessman, and her mother managed a small grocery store. The family lived comfortably, and Gloria attended Jewish school and enjoyed celebrating holidays with her large extended family.
On Sept. 1, 1939, however, the Germans bombed Krosno’s airport and soon occupied the city, immediately curtailing liberties and confiscating possessions. “We couldn’t even own a bicycle,” Gloria said.
Later, as roundups of Jews intensified, Gloria’s father hired the forester to transport the family, a few at a time, to Slovakia, where relatives lived. Gloria’s father and Jack went first. Her mother was next, and Gloria, Nathan and her cousin followed.
Gloria’s grandmother and her middle brother, Mordechai, never made it. After the war, Gloria learned that the Germans had raided the house. They shot her grandmother as she pleaded to stay, and took Mordechai away.
Gloria attended school in Bardejov until roundups began there, after which the family spent their days hiding in the forest. “I can’t tell you how bitter, bitter cold it was,” she remembered. At night, they returned to their house.
It was during this time that Gloria’s mother died of cancer. “She is the only one who has a grave,” Gloria said.
In spring 1944, the Jews were forced out of eastern Slovakia, and Gloria, her father and two brothers traveled by train to Nové Mesto nad Váhom in western Slovakia. At first they lived in an apartment, but later, their lives again in danger, they found a Christian woman who hid them in a cramped and almost airless storage area under her kitchen floor. At night she allowed them out for air and some food and to empty the waste bucket. After a month, the woman released them.
They returned to their apartment, planning to escape to the countryside the next day. But German trucks pulled up in the early morning and they were apprehended.
They were driven to the nearby city of Sered and placed in a transit camp. A few days later, in September or October 1944, they were pushed into cattle cars — “worse than the animals,” Gloria said — and traveled two days and two nights without food, water or toilets.
“I couldn’t believe I was going to my death. I was just 14 years old,” Gloria said. Her father became very emotional on the trip. “I’m not crying for own life. I’m already 40 years old. I’m crying for your young lives, my wonderful children,” he told them.
They arrived at Auschwitz at night, to pandemonium. Gloria’s father steered her to the men’s side with him. Then an unknown woman suddenly appeared and led Gloria away. “If not for her, I would have gone directly to the crematorium,” Gloria said.
The women lined up for another selection. Gloria stood on her tiptoes and pinched her cheeks, to look older and healthier. Dr. Josef Mengele directed her to the right.
Gloria and the other women were processed, their heads and private parts shaved and their arms tattooed with a number. They were given a blue-and-gray striped uniform, with no underwear, and a pair of shoes and taken to barracks.
During the day, after hours of standing for roll call, Gloria was marched in a group through the gates of Auschwitz to a quarry where she chopped rocks all day with a pickaxe.
In December 1944, as the Russian front was advancing, Gloria and the other prisoners were shipped by cattle car to Bergen-Belsen. “It’s the most terrible place on earth,” Gloria said. They spent their days sitting in the barracks or outside with the “dead ones.” There was no food.
Again, as the front approached Bergen-Belsen, the prisoners were taken by cattle car to Magdeburg, Germany, to work in a munitions factory. Later they were transported to a town where they worked outdoors clearing rubble.
They were then put on a train that stopped in a German forest so the dead bodies could be shoved off the train. Gloria was also accidentally pushed off but mustered the strength and presence of mind to climb back up.
She traveled for a few more days, then suddenly the train doors opened, and the prisoners were told they were in Denmark. It was May 4, 1945.
Gloria was too sick to move. She also felt little joy in being liberated, since she assumed no relatives had survived. She was 14, weighed 57 pounds and had a high fever, tuberculosis and a collapsed lung. “I was very close to death,” she said.
She was transferred by boat to Sweden, where she spent time in two hospitals, then was enrolled in a school in Lindingö for child survivors. While there, her brother Jack, who was in Prague, saw her name on a list of survivors and came to find her.
Jack obtained a visa for Gloria to attend Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Brooklyn. She arrived in New York in May 1947, and Jack followed three months later. Gloria graduated high school, attended Hunter College for two years and then worked.
At 82 and grateful for her life, Gloria volunteers three days a week at the Museum of Tolerance. She also enjoys spending time with her family and friends.
“People ask me about revenge,” Gloria said. “I have a beautiful family. I have 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. This is my revenge.”
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