Louis Koplin's oral history of his experiences between 1941 and 1945 are continued in Remembering the Holocaust.
Born in Nelipeno, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine), on July 30, 1920, Louis Koplin (Ludwig Kopolowitz) was the oldest of six children.
The region where Koplin grew up was known as Carpathian Ruthenia. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to World War I and was subsequently incorporated into Czechoslovakia. The multinational population had Ruthenians, a branch of the Ukrainian people (about 50 percent), Hungarians (33 percent), and Jews (15 percent). As of 1941, the region's Jewish population had reached more than 78,000.
During Koplin's childhood, his family moved to nearby Svaljava, and Koplin graduated from the Munkacs Gymnasium in 1941, two years after Hungary annexed the region. The Czech government had treated the Jews relatively well, they were now subjected to Hungary's anti-semitic measures, which deprived Jews of basic civil rights and subjected them to socioeconomic discrimination.
Was Svaljava rural?
No, we lived in a city, and I would say the houses were as close as they would be in a city block, except without pavement, . . . and with big backyards, and they were row streets only. In other words, the whole city was composed of one single street, but the houses were built next to each other on that row of streets, and there was no depth to those villages.
Did families have their businesses at home?
Yes. As a rule there were no shops as we know it today. I recall the tailor and I recall even the grocer, they always lived under the same roof where they plied their trades, so to speak.
Did Jews and non-Jews interact?
Only on the business level, whenever business was conducted. In terms of social contact, I would say the Jews kind of stuck with each other. I would say there was not any social interaction to the degree that you see here today.
Did you experience anti-Semitism as you were growing up?
Yes, we did, and it was quite verbal and loud. You were told that you were a dirty Jew right from the moment that you understand. On the first opportunity you ran into anybody he let you know that you were a dirty Jew and you were different from anybody else.
Did you look different from the non-Jews?
Yes. As a rule, most Jewish kids that I knew, we wore certain distinguishable features that made us different. We were easily picked out of the crowd as being Jewish. Up to the age of fourteen or fifteen, I had side payot, they called it, side curls, [and] I always wore a cap or a hat, whether it was winter or summer. There was something about a Jewish kid that was different than a gentile kid, and, of course, we were easily picked out of the crowd. That, of course, made us always a much better target for abuse and whatever.
What languages did you speak?
The language spoken at home, at least in Svaljava, was Jewish. In other words, between the family members we always spoke Yiddish. As soon as we walked out of doors, depending upon who you ran into, you had to use another one or two languages to survive, to communicate. The indigenous population was primarily Ruthenian. Ruthenian is kind of an ill-defined language consisting of Russian, Slovakian, and some other mixtures of languages which had no really an official standing at any time, at least not at that time; however, it was a language which must have come through the millennia most likely out of a combination of languages, And this language we picked up very easily, and we had no problems communicating.
But the official language in school was Czech, and there was a compulsive language. And then my parents, between each other, spoke Hungarian. This was the remnant of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and it was always the thing to do. I would say it was the classy language, and as you traveled south of Svaljava to Munkacs, that was predominantly a Hungarian town. So any child, in order for him to survive, had to speak at least three languages.
What kind of news did you receive about what was happening to Jews elsewhere in Europe?
All kinds of news, in terms of concentration camps and killings and economic oppression and that kind of stuff.
How did this information come to you?
By word of mouth mostly, travelers.
Did people refuse to believe that things could be so bad?
Right. Or you ignored it. Even when the transports from Slovakia later on went through Svaljava and we brought food to the station for the Slovakian Jews, we handled it as if we were on the outside of it, this is something that only happens to some other people and not yourself.
Did the people in the trains try to talk to you?
They didn't have to. You could see what was happening. We knew what was happening, but we hoped that this would not happen here, and they always told us, well, these people were really foreigners to Slovakia, they were not permanent residents, that they were the recent comers. There were always explanations. That this would not happen to the permanent population. And then there was no choice, there was no escape. You always can put yourself in a defensive frame of mind if you have no choice. There was nothing you could do about it in any given stage. If I recall, my father could never, under any circumstances, even if he had decided to move his family away from Europe, he could not scrape together enough money to put all of us on a train and to get us to a certain destination. It was just beyond his ability to do so, and so it was of the whole community.
You didn't even consider moving away?
There was no escape. I mean we just take as things come.
Did anti-Semitism increase when the Hungarians occupied the area?
Oh God. First thing we did was that they had to set up conditions under which a Jew could continue to stay in Hungary, to qualify for Hungarian citizenship. One of the conditions was that you must have lived within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy border—I don't recall whether it was a hundred years or something. I suspect it was about a hundred years, if I recall. In other words, you had to have lived or some of your ancestors must have lived within that given area since 1850. And in order to prove that, that was quite a job and that's what I did, as a matter of fact. I traveled throughout the mountains to seek out some kind of proof, whether it was in the form of a birth certificate or a real estate transaction or a deed or anything like that that would prove that my ancestors, either my great-grandfather or somebody, lived there at that time, which, by the way, I successfully did find. It was a matter of a deed of some sort, deed transaction . . . . It took about a year, but by that time I already was taken into slave labor. I remember my father writing to me that they got the citizenship while I was already in slave labor.
What would the consequences have been if you couldn't find proof of citizenship?
The alternative was, for sure, death, so to speak. Because what they did is they took you and just put you across the border and abandoned you. And, of course, across the border you were also a foreign element. You were just destroyed, that's all.
Although the Hungarian government did not take overt action against the Jews of the region, Jewish males were drafted and sent to the Russian front to dig trenches soon after the German invasion of Russia in June, 1941. Jews remained relatively safe, however, until Germany occupied Hungary. Only 20 percent of Carpathian Ruthenian's Jewish population survived the war.
In the beginning of the Hungarian occupation, the rules applying to Jews were the same as applying to the rest of the population in terms of military induction. The only difference was that if inducted the Jews were taken to nonmilitary services, such as slave labor or paramilitary, and the gentiles, of course, went into military service. In 1940 I was taken in for a medical examination, and I did not pass it because I was underweight, undernourished, under whatever have you, and then in 1941 I successfully passed the examination.
Were you heavier than you had been in 1940?
Not really. Not, because we'd worked at it very hard not to reach a certain whatever health status. But they inducted me [anyway]. I was taken to Komarom, which was at least a thousand kilometers away. It's on the Danube, it's west of Budapest. It was a half-Czech, half-Hungarian city. It's known as Komarno under the Czechs, it's known as Komarom under the Hungarians, and I stayed there from 1941 until 1944.
I was lucky enough to have stayed there for one reason and that is I was chosen to become a shoemaker. On the first day of our induction they lined up at least 2,000 of us and I remember the commander, who was marching in front of the line, said, "All shoemakers, one step forward." There must have been a thousand shoemakers that could have stepped forward, and by the grace of God he stopped next to me and he says, "One step out," and about three or four of us were chosen and that provided a certain security for the next three years.