George Heller, now 87, spent a year in slave labor camps as World War II came to an end: about six months in a camp in Budapest and six months in an "extermination by work" camp at Mauthausen, Austria.
Mr. Heller, a Hungarian Jew when being a Jew in Central Europe was tantamount to a death sentence, survived, barely. When the American 11th Armored Division liberated the Mauthausen camp in 1945, Mr. Heller weighed 80 pounds, he told an honors English class in a presentation at Menlo-Atherton High School on Friday, Jan. 29.
A horrific experience, but not an excuse. After the war and a year as a volunteer interpreter at a displaced persons camp in Austria — he spoke six languages — Mr. Heller emigrated to the United States and went on to a distinguished career in computer science with IBM Corp., he said.
Education, including proficiency with languages, is his passion: "I was in Austria (after the war) with nothing, absolutely nothing, a strange world, and that's all I needed," he told the M-A class.
He has two degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one from Temple University, he said, and a history of taking time out to talk with young people, about computers for much of his career and about the Holocaust.
Mr. Heller is an optimist. Despite his age, he makes regular visits to a climbing wall and posts photos online to document his ascents. At the top of the walls, and in the classroom at M-A, he hangs a banner emblazoned with his simple motto: "It's possible!"
Drafted in Budapest
Despite anti-Jewish laws enacted in Hungary after World War I, Mr. Heller grew up middle class and worked in the family owned printing business. Life "rapidly deteriorated" after Hitler came to power in Germany, Mr. Heller said in an online account.
While Hungarian Jews may have escaped the German pogroms during the 1930s, a Nazi-inspired bomb did damage a Budapest synagogue one night when he was inside, he said.
His life took a bad turn in May 1944 upon being drafted into the Hungarian military, which had slave labor units intended for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, Mr. Heller told The Almanac.
"No uniform. No supplies. It was under military command," he said. "Depending on where you were, you were treated well or badly. My unit was lucky. Worked hard but generally managed." When his father died, for example, Mr. Heller said he was allowed to attend the funeral.
His luck held. At one point, while waiting outside an embassy in an attempt to secure legal protection, police press-ganged him into another unit and marched them off to a brick factory outside of town. He escaped and made it back to his unit, he said.
When the Nazis invaded Hungary in October 1944, "the world changed," Mr. Heller said. The Jews of Budapest were consigned to a ghetto — his sister died there, brutally murdered, he said — but the rest were sent to Auschwitz, including "a large part" of his extended family who never returned, he said. His brother, also a slave laborer, died on the Russian front.
Deportation came soon. With 80 other men, he stood for three days in a windowless box car in a train of box cars en route to Austria. No food, no water, no toilet other then a tin can that they passed around, he said. At stops to unload the dead, guards would leave them by the side of the tracks.
Nought but grass
Upon arrival in Burgenland, Austria, the Nazis herded the men off the train and into a forced three-day march. Still without food and water, the men would eat grass when they had the chance, Mr. Heller said. Stragglers were shot. "As far as I know, no one was left behind alive," he said.
On reaching the Danube River, they boarded a boat. The guards promised food, but there was none, at least not for them, Mr. Heller said. They might have been eight days on the water; he said he is unsure.
On the boat, he said he traded a carefully hidden pocket watch for a loaf of bread. A slice a day saved four lives, including his.
At Mauthausen, he said he expected to be machine gunned, but guns weren't necessary. "Death came quickly and naturally to many whose system could no longer take the starvation," he said.
They spent the winter in large tents. Every morning, wooden carts came around for the dead, usually minus their stolen shoes. "Perhaps those shoes may still make the difference between perishing and survival," he said.
The rings of barbed wire surrounding the camp aside, escape was perilous. "The (residential) population that lived in that part of the world was very unfriendly and would have reported or killed any inmates had one tried to get help," he told the M-A class. "The reason these things could happen is because people voted for it. If the law says kill. ..."
"Things are never so bad that it can't possibly get worse," he told the students in closing. "You have to realize that and enjoy all the good things that you have."
"If you think something is right," he added, "you stand up for it because there will come a time when you can't stand up."