“When we got to Auschwitz, it was during the night like about twelve . . . If you ever saw bedlam, or if you could imagine hell, that must have been it. Because everybody was trying to hold on to their children; they tried to hold on to each other.” Listen to Martin Weiss describe his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Learn about some of his experiences, actions, and the choices he was forced to make during the Holocaust.
Now there was 125 to 135 people per boxcar. You have to remember young, old... I had one uncle, he had tuberculosis. He had TB and he was in a sanitarium. They even picked him up on a stretcher and brought him in. They wouldn’t leave him behind. And shipped him to . . .
And shipped him to Auschwitz.
Well he died just before the shipping, but the point is that they would not leave anybody behind. And it was that kind of a situation. And what happened is that—they put us on train. Again they put us on a train with 125, 135 per boxcar with these bundles. No toilet facilities, no water, no food. And for three days and nights we were on a train.
Finally we did get to Poland. And then, frankly, we got very frightened because we heard of all the things that were happening in Poland, and the reason. We saw through the crack of the door the names of the cities and we also heard the Polish language spoken outside. So people knew we were in big for trouble.
But we never heard of Auschwitz until we got there. When we got to Auschwitz, it was during the night like about twelve . . . I don’t know, sometime, it was late at night, twelve o’clock at night. Anyway, they opened the doors and there were floodlights surrounding us. And you got off the train. If you ever saw bedlam, or if you could imagine hell, that must have been it. Because everybody was trying to hold on to their children; they tried to hold on to each other. And in the meantime, people in those striped clothes that you see in the Museum, which prisoners wore, which was the first time we saw them, walking around with big sticks screaming and shouting “Schnell, schnell!” “Get out!” and “Move, move fast!” And so everybody was trying to hold on and everybody was scared out of their wits. And the floodlights, like I said, were shining in your eyes.
But in the meantime, they had guards, with their finger on the trigger, I should say, and German police dogs are surrounding us. And until this day I don’t know why because it was all enclosed in a yard with electrified fences. And nobody could run any place.
As soon as we got off, they started separating us, men from women and so on. And then we had to go through a line. Everything had to move very very fast, high speeds. And these guys with the sticks were going around and forcing that. And the Gestapo was overseeing that. And they all, whether they were nasty or not, they had to act nasty. And some were, some were just acting that way. But nevertheless, they separated the men from the women. Then we had to go through a line, and the officer would stand there and go like this, left or right. If you went to left, you went to your death. If you went to right, you went to work. And so basically this was our initiation or our first experience in Auschwitz.
And of course we never heard of the crematoriums. We never heard of anything like this. It wasn’t even in our vocabulary, it just didn’t exist. But anyway, we went through, we were picked—my father, some of my relatives, a lot of other people from my town. We went through the line. I was not that big. I was like just about 15 years old; I was actually small for my age. Turned out to be, I was the only one from the boys in my age to come through.
From about 30 to 35 boys, all of them went first to their death the first night we came to Auschwitz. And the reason I attribute it to—I put on like two or three jackets because they told us about work, so I wanted to make myself look bigger and somehow I passed. And it was just a matter of luck actually.
And so we went through the showers. Or before we went there . . . OK, we were separated and we were picked for work. And so they grouped us together and all the other people went to another side. And while we were standing there I noticed there was a little empty space between us and there was a group of people, and I noticed my mother and my two little sisters on the other side. So I said to my father, “You know, I’m going to run across this space and I’ll go with my mother because I’ll be able to get some food or something.” Because my sisters were too young to be able to do it and this way I could be of help to them.
So my father said OK, so I tried to make a dash across the space. And this man with a stick in the striped uniform comes and grabs a hold of me and says, “Go back there, you can’t go there!” Like I said, very nasty. And I came back and I complained to my father, “Could you imagine? I found out he was a prisoner. He acts like that.”
And, to make a long story short, we went through the showers, we came out on the other side, they cut all our hair off. With a grown man they even took a razor and shaved their body hair off. That’s to prevent them from having lice, they said. We came out on the other side. We also had these striped clothes; they gave us striped clothes. And they took us to the barracks. And they were big barracks, almost like they were made for horses. They had like something in the middle to tie up the horses and stuff. Anyway, they were big barracks with bunks. They put in 12 people in a bunk, believe it or not, we had to sleep there.
We came out . . . oh, next morning . . . oh no, when we got to the barracks, before we went into the barracks, dawn was coming up. All of the sudden we saw these big flames coming out from under a bunch of pine trees. But the flames were shooting up very high into the sky. And we could also smell flesh burning. And then we saw the chimneys, the big five chimneys with black smoke coming out. And all of the sudden at that time somebody found out what it was and they told us what had happened.
And so by next morning, when we saw those fires and stuff, we realized all our families were already going up in smoke by that time.
Martin “Marty” Weiss was born Meier Weiss on January 28, 1929 in Veľká Poľana, Czechoslovakia to Jacob and Golda Weiss. Jacob was a subsistence farmer and a meat distributor, and Golda managed their orthodox Jewish household and raised their nine children (Mendl, Issac, Ellen, Cilia, Moshe, Hannah, Marty, Esther, and Monica). Czechoslovakia had become an independent democracy after World War I, and the Weiss family were proud citizens of the newly-formed nation.
In 1938–1939, Nazi Germany and other countries dismantled Czechoslovakia and annexed and occupied much of its territory. Hungary took control of the southeastern part of Slovakia, where Marty and his family lived. The Hungarians implemented antisemitic laws, which were similar to the Nuremberg Race Laws and defined Jews in Hungary racially. Jews in Hungary lost their equal rights as citizens, and economic opportunities for Jews were restricted. The Hungarian regime also required Jewish men, including Marty’s two oldest brothers, Mendl and Issac, to serve in forced labor battalions. Beginning in 1941, tens of thousands of Jewish men were sent to the eastern front, where the vast majority died from dangerous and deadly conditions. Although the rights of Jews to engage in trade and own businesses were heavily restricted, Jacob managed to retain his business license. He continued to earn money by performing ritual slaughter on animals, which had been banned by the government, at night and selling the meat on the black market.
In March 1944, Nazi Germany occupied its ally Hungary and enacted even more restrictive antisemitic measures, including requiring Jews to wear the yellow star badge on their clothing. Beginning in April 1944, Germans and their Hungarian collaborators forced hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews into ghettos. The Weisses were imprisoned in the Munkács ghetto for several weeks. In the ghetto, the Hungarian guards forced the Weisses and others to move bricks by hand from one side of the factory to the other and back again. This pointless but grueling task was an act of torture and humiliation. Over a two-month period beginning in May 1944, nearly 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary. Most were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center, including Marty and most of his family who were deported to Auschwitz in May 1944. When they arrived, the transport underwent a selection process, in which a small percentage of people were selected for forced labor. Marty, his brother Moshe, his sisters Cilia and Hannah, their father Jacob, and two uncles were selected for forced labor. The Nazi-SS murdered his mother Golda and two younger sisters Esther and Monica in gas chambers, along with other extended family members.
Marty and Jacob were then transported to the Mauthausen concentration camp, where they were forced to work in the stone quarries, and then to Melk, a subcamp of Mauthausen. In Melk, the Germans forced prisoners to carve tunnels into the sides of mountains. Jacob died from exhaustion and starvation. As the Allies advanced into Germany in the spring of 1945, the Nazi-SS evacuated the Melk camp. Marty and other inmates were sent back to the main camp. Marty was then forced on a death march from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen, a Mauthausen subcamp located in a forest with extremely primitive and overcrowded conditions. He was liberated at Gunskirchen by the United States Army on May 5, 1945.
After liberation, Marty returned to Czechoslovakia. There he reunited with Cilia who was liberated by the British at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. He learned from Cilia that their sister Hannah had died in the camps. Cilia married fellow survivor Fred Moss. He also reunited with his oldest brother, Mendl, who had survived the war in a Hungarian labor battalion. The siblings located their sister Ellen who had immigrated to the United States in 1939. Ellen helped secure United States immigration visas for Marty, Mendl, Cilia, and Fred, and they arrived in New York in July 1946. They later learned the fate of their other brothers. Issac had survived his service in the Hungarian labor battalions. Moshe had survived the camps, but died shortly after liberation under unclear circumstances. Of the eleven members of Marty’s immediate family, five survived the Holocaust.
Marty served in the United States Army during the Korean War before entering the grocery business in 1955. In 1957 he married Joan Merlis. They had two children. Marty volunteered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1998 until his death in 2023.