My grandfather immigrated from Stropkov, Slovakia to America in the early 1900s. He left behind a widowed father and a younger brother, Peretz. When Peretz married Mirl Schwartz, the couple took over the Amsel household, raising wheat, vegetables, and hay for the cows. They also ran the family tavern, selling liquor to people who stopped by on their way to market. By 1942, the couple had four children-Ruzenka, Sara, Samuel, and Izidor.
In March 1942, the Slovakians began deporting the Jews to concentration camps in Poland. Documents show that first, Ruzenka Amsel, barely eighteen years old, was deported from Stropkov to Auschwitz, on a girls’ transport. 1 Then in May, her mother Mirl, her siblings, and her elderly grandfather were taken, together.2 But Peretz did not appear on any Stropkov transport list. What happened to Peretz?
Although I knew so little about him–only his name and birthplace, I contacted the International Tracing Service, in Arolsen, Germany, hoping to learn his fate:
AMSEL, Pavel (a variant of Peretz), born in 1898,
last place of residence: Stropkov, Jew
was evacuated with the II Transport from Zilina to an unknown
destination on March 31, 1942.3
Zilina, located on the Polish border east of Stropkov, served as a way station for thousands of Slovakian Jews awaiting deportation north to the camps. If they arrived in a small transport, their group would be held until an optimal number of “pieces” — 1000 Jews, was assembled. Then a new, updated list would be compiled, and the cattle cars could be filled to capacity.Stropkov survivors confirmed that indeed, a week after the girls’ transport left the village, a second, smaller transport of young men was taken.4
And sure enough, Peretz Amsel appeared on the updated transport list, the one that was compiled in Zilina as the train left for an unknown destination. 5
Studying this transport list, I saw that the men taken ranged in age from sixteen to over forty. Peretz must have been lean and healthy, because he was among the oldest taken. He was forty-four years old. His “unknown destination” could have been any of the work or concentration camps in Poland. On pure intuition, I wrote to the Auschwitz Museum(actually an archive) for any information they might offer me. I was surprised to learn that two months after leaving Stropkov, Peretz was taken to Auschwitz.
AMSEL, Paul (another variant of Peretz)
born in Stropkov on 23.11.1898, occupation: farmer,
was committed to Concentration Camp Auschwitz on 30th
June, 1942, Prisoner’s No: 43888. Died August 27, 1942. 6
Danuta Czech 7 confirmed this in Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945, noting that a transport of 400 Jews arrived in Auschwitz on June 30–from Majdanek. On arrival, these prisoners were assigned numbers #43833 through #44232. So Peretz–whose number was #43888 — was definitely among them. Moreover, if Peretz was assigned a number, he was not immediately gassed. He arrived healthy enough to work. But Czech also notes that, of the 400 men who arrived in that group, only 208 were still alive six weeks later.
Peretz arrived in Auschwitz three months after his daughter Ruzenka did, and somehow, he learned where she was. He even managed to smuggle her a message that he was sitting, cutting logs. And she knew that only men with swollen legs, only men unable to work much longer sat, cutting logs. Peretz Amsel died in Auschwitz on August 27. 8
I had been unbelievably lucky in my research. While millions perished nameless and forgotten, unaccountably the last tortuous months of Peretz’ life had been documented — from Stropkov to Zilina to Majdanek to Auschwitz. But despite all the documentation, I still did not have a real sense of Uncle Peretz, the man. So I traveled to Stropkov, walked its streets, stood where his house and farm had been, and spoke with his neighbors. “Ah, Peretz”, they remembered, smiling, “a wonderful man, so calm, so good, so fair… a man of gold.” Although nearly sixty years had passed, his neighbors still remembered him with love.
Then my research took an unexpected turn. A friend who was also researching Slovakia mentioned the book, I Cannot Forgive, by Rudolf Vrba, and remarked that his story resembles that of my Uncle Peretz. Both men were Slovakian, both were held in Zilina, and both were incarcerated in Majdanek, and finally, taken to Auschwitz.
According to Vrba, the Majdanek prisoners were ordered to “volunteer” for “farm work”. On June 30, these volunteers, including Vrba himself, were taken to the “farm”–Auschwitz.
As luck would have it, within a few days, I happened to see a letter on the Internet H-Holocaust Mailing list written by Vrba himself. I contacted him:
I was very excited to find your letter to the H-Holocaust Mailing List! I have read your book I Cannot Forgive. Do you remember my uncle Peretz (Paul, Pavel) Amsel of Stropkov, Slovakia? He was incarcerated at Majdanek sometime after March 31, 1942. Then on June 30, 1942 he was moved to Auschwitz, where he was given the number #43888 — and stated that his profession was “farmer”. I remember in your book that the Nazis were looking for farmers then and there. He died in Auschwitz on August 27, 1942…. Peretz was approximately forty years old, with a wife and four children, a simple, good man. Perhaps he was with you?
He answered immediately:
Many thanks for your kind message. My number in Auschwitz was 44070 which is quite close [to] his number 43888 and so we certainly were in the same group during the Auschwitz registration. That group which came from Maidanek on June 30, 1942 consisted of 400 men including me and I think perhaps half a dozen survived, those I remember, the dead were so many that not even an encyclopedic mind could remember them all. I am sure I must have seen your uncle at that time and as he is not with us I share with you the loss….. In any way we all promised to another that whoever survives will transfer the greetings and blessings from their dear dead. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to do so!
The words seemed to echo through the years. Peretz spoke once more.
1 March 24, 1942, Stropkov to Poprad, girls (headed: “Nastup v koncentration miesta: Poprad
dna 24.III.1942: Okres Stropkov”). File M-5/117, p. 5. Yad Va Shem Archives, Jerusalem,
March 24, 1942, Poprad to Auschwitz, girls (headed: “Poprad Transport I 24/III”).
File M- 5/ 112, p. 32. Yad VaShem Archives, Jerusalem, Israel.
2 May 23, 1942, Stropkov to Zilina, family transport (headed: ‘Transport II Doplnujuci”). File
M-5/117, p. 1. Yad VaShem Archives, Jerusalem, Israel.
3 Letter. International Tracing Service, Arolsen, Germany. May 10, 1985.
4 March 30, 1942, Stropkov to Zilina Transport list was not located.
5 March 30, 1942, Zilina to Lublinland, mens’ transport (headed: ‘ Zilina II. Transport 11
- 1113 osob”) File M-5/110, pg 1. Yad Va Shem Archives, Jerusalem, Israel. The
discrepency in dates may be due to an overnight journey.
6 Letter. Panstwowe Muzeum Oswiecim Brzezinka, Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland.
7 Czech, Danuta. Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945. London: Tauris, 1990, p. 189.
8 Letter. Panstwowe Muzeum Oswiecim Brzezinka, Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland.
9 Vrba, Rudolf and Alan Bestic. I Cannot Forgive. New York: Bantam Books, 1964.