October 3, 2012
The train arrived at Dachau one morning in late November 1944. As the doors opened, German soldiers wielding big sticks yelled, “Raus, raus” (“Out, out”). Alex Friedman and the other Jewish prisoners exited, were marched toward the camp and, outside in the snow and cold, ordered to strip. Alex gave up his warm coat and the tefillin he had carried from Hungary. The men stood in a long line, waiting to see an SS doctor, who examined them one by one. “How do you say belly button in German?” Alex asked a fellow prisoner. He had pain and wanted medical attention. When Alex’s turn came, he started to speak, but the doctor hurriedly pushed him forward. “I was naïve. I had no idea they were killing people,” Alex said, looking back. He was 23.
After Alex was processed, he was given a shirt, pants and wooden shoes, and sent to a barracks. “We had no time to be afraid. We gave up everything already,” he said.
Alex was born Sándor Friedman on March 21, 1921, in Kiskunfélegyháza, Hungary, to Mihaly and Rachel Friedman. He was the youngest of six children in an observant Orthodox family with two girls — “the most beautiful girls ever,” Alex said — and four boys. Their father ran a general store and provided comfortably for his family.
“I was lucky. I had everybody. I was the youngest,” Alex said.
Although anti-Semitism always existed in Kiskunfélegyháza, Alex said, especially on Easter and Christmas when “talking against the Jews” was widespread, it mostly had been subdued. Plus, his family was well liked. Local farmers who could not read or write sought help from Alex’s mother, who composed and posted letters for them, even paying for the stamps.
But in October 1940, when Hungary became an ally of Germany, anti-Jewish measures took effect. Among other prohibitions, Jews could not buy merchandise. Alex, who was 19 at the time and running his father’s store, traveled to Budapest to find goods. “We were selling whatever we could get,” he said.
On March 19, 1944, however, Germany invaded Hungary, and by April all the Jews in Kiskunfélegyháza were ordered to wear yellow stars and relocate to the ghetto. Alex and his parents moved into one room. “Everybody was thinking — though no one was saying it out loud — that they brought us to the ghetto to kill us,” he said.
After 10 days of not knowing whether to flee or stay, Alex volunteered for forced labor. He was taken to an army barracks and sent to work each day at a private, German-owned canning factory five miles away, in Nagykoros, where he peeled apples, among other jobs. “We had everything,” Alex said, including all the apples they could eat.
But in mid-October 1944, as Hungary tried to make peace with the Soviets, German troops deposed Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy and replaced him with Ferenc Szálasi, head of the Hungarian Nazis, who stepped up deportations and executions.
Soon after, Alex’s labor unit was sent on a forced march. After five weeks, with intermittent stops, they came to a large, empty field in Zurndorf, Austria, where thousands of prisoners were “guarded by 16-year-old German boys with big guns,” Alex said. They were then loaded onto cattle cars and shipped to Dachau. It was the end of November 1944.
Alex had been in Dachau only a few days when he and a group of prisoners were sent to Mühldorf, a Dachau subcamp, where much construction was taking place. “We didn’t know what they were building,” Alex said. There they slept two to a bunk and subsisted on meager rations.
A few days into the job, while unloading bags of cement weighing 50 kilograms (about 110 pounds) from a truck and carrying them up several flights of stairs, Alex was punched hard in the face by a soldier. The blow knocked him to the ground and caused so much swelling his friends didn’t recognize him. “I wasn’t working fast enough,” he remembered.
Alex remained at Mühldorf about five months, wearing the same shirt and pair of pants. Sometimes he carried bags of cement. Other times he shoveled loose cement into wooden boxes and hauled those. Then, around the third week in April 1945, when Alex was digging a runway and was “so weak he couldn’t even pick up a stick,” he overheard a German soldier say the war would soon end.
A week later, Alex and other Mühldorf prisoners were loaded onto cattle cars. “They want to kill us all in the mountains,” Alex heard people saying. But because American troops were advancing from several directions, the train never reached its destination and instead halted on a siding at Bavaria, where the prisoners were liberated by American troops on May 1, 1945.
Alex spent three months in the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp, which was quickly established on the site of a former Hitler youth camp, near the train siding.
In August, Alex returned to Kiskunfélegyháza, arriving at midnight. Unable to sleep, he spent the first night sitting on the synagogue floor. The next day, he went to his parents’ house, but he couldn’t go inside; he just sat on the curb.
Alex moved into his sister’s house. She and all his siblings, as well as his parents, had been killed in Auschwitz, with the exception of his brother Naftoli, who was liberated from Mauthausen and who lived with Alex until Naftoli’s death in 1987.
Of the 1,500 Jews living in Kiskunfélegyháza before the war, according to Alex’s recollection, only 30 came back. But it was there that he was introduced to Eva Goldman, who had spent more than a year in Auschwitz, and they married on Dec. 4, 1945. Their son, Andrew, was born on April, 26, 1947.
In 1949, when communists came to power in Hungary, Alex tried unsuccessfully to escape through Czechoslovakia with his family. They then settled in Budapest. But on Dec. 4, 1956, after the Hungarian uprising, they escaped again, walking all night until they safely reached Austria. In January 1957, they arrived in Los Angeles with little money and no English.
Alex found work as a typewriter repairman. He saved money and, after two years, began buying convenience stores, accumulating seven. In 1978, at 57, he retired, renting out the stores and making other real-estate investments. His wife died in 1998.
Today, Alex is 91 and, because of ill health, he misses attending services at Congregation Bais Naftoli on La Brea Avenue, named for his brother. But he enjoys spending time with his family — his son, four grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
“God was always watching me,” he said.