February 1, 2012
Ernest Braunstein was walking back to his barracks at the Bor labor camp, in Yugoslavia, when he spotted a man suspended from a post by his wrists, which had been tied tightly behind the man’s back. He had passed out, and Ernest brought him water. A guard, witnessing the interaction, gave Ernest the same punishment. When Ernest blacked out from the pain, the guard lowered him, revived him and hung him again, repeatedly. After three hours, Ernest estimates, he was sent back to his barracks, where his friends surreptitiously fed him until he recovered. To this day, he can lift his right arm only to his shoulder.
Ernest was born Feb. 12, 1924, in Germany and moved as an infant to Oradea Mare, Romania. As a child, he lived a very comfortable, modern Jewish life with his mother, Aranka; his businessman father, Aladar; and his younger brother, Joseph.
At 17, Ernest moved to Budapest to live with his uncle and attend college. One day, around January 1943, Ernest was walking home when a group of Hungarian soldiers cornered him, dragged him to the side of the road and demanded he pull down his pants to determine if he was a Jew. Outnumbered, he complied. The soldiers then pinned a yellow star on his clothing and ordered him to report for labor camp the next day.
At Bor, Ernest swung a pickax from morning to evening, digging out a hillside for railroad tracks. But in late summer 1944, with the Russian troops advancing toward Yugoslavia and forcing a Nazi retreat, the approximately 6,000 prisoners at Bor were marched out of the country. Ernest’s group of about 3,600 left on Sept. 17.
The march was grueling. “If you couldn’t walk, they killed you right there,” Ernest said. Along the way, someone dropped a leather jacket, probably because he was too weak or weary to carry it, and Ernest grabbed it. “It saved my life,” he said, affording him protection from the cold and snow.
When they stopped at a brick factory in Cservenka, Hungary, Ernest volunteered to help dig a large ditch the soldiers claimed was necessary for the war effort. Intuition told him, however, not to volunteer for the night shift. Instead, he hid alone in a hayloft and heard the endless “rat a tat tat” of machine gun fire as German and Hungarian soldiers murdered somewhere between 800 and 1,000 prisoners.
Another time, he and nine other volunteers unloaded a ship docked in the Danube River, helping themselves to food and clothing. The Nazis caught them, demanding to know the ringleader and threatening to shoot everyone. Finally Ernest took the blame. “I had no choice,” he said. He was led outside and blindfolded. But just before the firing squad began shooting, a Nazi officer temporarily halted the execution, angry that he had not been consulted. Ernest was placed in an enclosed room. With his new boot, however, he kicked a hole in the wall and jumped into the river below, hiding in a deserted ship. Weak and lacking other options, however, he rejoined the march the next morning.
Eventually the approximately 800 surviving prisoners reached the German border, where they were packed onto a train — “like the cows,” Ernest said — and sent to Auschwitz. There, the Nazis insisted that he and other prisoners sit outside on benches in the bitter cold for hours at a time. “I remember, one day I was one of the few people left on my bench alive by the time night fell,” he said.
After a week, Ernest responded to a request for mechanics, though he had never held a hammer in his life. He was sent to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, where he worked building airplanes. He was “paid” with cigarettes, then often negotiating with a Nazi guard, trading a cigarette for a meal.
Ernest answered another request — “Anything they needed, I volunteered. That saved my life,” he said — and was sent to Mauthausen, where he remembers digging out a hillside for an aircraft runway.
Then, in early May 1945, the German soldiers started fleeing. The next day, hearing a motor, Ernest ran outside to see a jeep pull up with three French soldiers. “I will never forget that,” he said. Within hours, American troops arrived.
Ernest remained in Germany, serving as police chief when Bergen-Belsen became a displaced persons camp. He also escorted survivors on train trips back to Hungary and Romania.
In 1946, on a trip to Romania, he found his brother and father, who had survived the camps, though his mother had not. He helped his brother immigrate to America. He followed in 1949, and his father later went to Israel.
Ernest came to California, where he began driving a truck — without a license — for the L.A. Pleating and Button Co., working his way up to partner. Then, with a loan from the Jewish Community Council — he remembers it as $2,000 — he started his own business. He later worked as a convalescent home administrator and a real estate entrepreneur, retiring at 78.
Married and divorced twice, Ernest has a daughter, Gilda, and a stepdaughter, Diana. He also has three grandchildren, whom he sees every week.
Now living at the Jewish Home, Ernest, almost 88, keeps himself busy despite suffering from macular degeneration. He is active in the Men’s Club and attends shul every Saturday.
“All the way through, God — I don’t know why — helped me,” he said.