Interview by Danielle Vigh

Bundi (Andy) Sternberg (In His Own Words)

I wasn’t in my twenties, I wasn’t even 14.  In 1944, April 26 we were picked up. I have to tell you, prior to that, March 19 of 1944, the German army occupied Hungary.  We were living relative comfortable there were some anti-Jewish law since 1938 probably some laws exist since 1928.  There was a quota in Universities.  Only medical, engineering, law, business, there was only so many percentage Jews allowed in Universities. They did not go by merit they go by religion. This did not affect me because I was not of age.  Like I said, in March of 1944 the German army occupied Hungry.  About 10 days later a law came out that we had to wear the Star of David.  This meant we had to wear it visibly, I think 6 inches in diameter.  If you do not wear it there was a serious financial or physical punishment. But 1944 April 26, we were picked up. Prior to that day, about 5am, they post it all over the city that Jews not allowed out of the home.  The gentile people were not allowed to visit Jews, Jews were not allowed to visit gentle people. No connection what so ever.  I try to go with the sequences what happen, but prior to that date if anyone had an automobile had to be surrendered to the central police station.  The motorcycle, horse and buggies, bicycle…everyday something new…and the radio, and the television. We practically been cut off from communication and transportation.  So Jews were very easy to pick it up.

People, they  came with the list and told us that we have to have a 10 kilogram, probably 20 pound, package….no money no jewelry, only necessary clothing.  And they came, the sheriff with riffles and bayonets came. We get lined up in the courtyard of our home, small town, about 40,000 people, 2,000 Jews. They ask if we have any jewelry, silver or gold in our suitcase, if we say no and they find it in the luggage you get executed in the spot.  We didn’t have anything, just ourselves.  Everybody afraid to do anything like that.

Then we were taken to the local temple yard.  People slept on the ground.  It was a balmy beautiful Thursday about 10:30 in the morning.  I don’t want to talk about that much of myself I tell more about what I saw what I experienced.  It took me for years before I was able to sort it out in my mind.  How this happened, what is happened, and in some cases even why this happened.  I remember a family of Jewish grains traders.  Very well to do men, but he has German catholic wife.  German citizen born in Germany, they met in Hungary and got married.  They have little Girl named Beah.  We were in the Ghetto and the Gestapo came and told her to go home because she was a German citizen, she was not a Jew, she and her daughter could go home.  And she said, “I am going where my husband is go.”  I just try to brief you for the unknown things.  We had no idea where we were going what was happening. She decided not to leave the ghetto. The end result: her husband comes back but her and her daughter got gassed.

I’m more interested in telling the human story, the cruelty that existed, probably still existing.  That was April 26th.  May 3rd, Wednesday; we were put in a cattle wagon.  50 people with two containers, one for human waste, one for water.  I have to tell you, the water ran out.  The train left at about 2:30 in the afternoon and it ran out by 7:00pm.  Everybody was thirsty.  We stopped at a railway station in the last major town in Hungary before we crossed the border of Annexed Austria which belonged to Germany.  We were let out the next morning but we were surrounded by men with guns.  That was Thursday.  We slept in the cattle wagon again Thursday night.  Friday afternoon at around 1:00pm the German S.S. took over and it was extremely fast.  Everyone was screaming and yelling.  We had to go back to the cattle wagon and the doors got locked and sealed.

The train left at about 1:00 and didn’t stop until the following day.  12:30- 1:00 at a place I had never heard of, nobody on the train had ever heard of, Auschwitz.  This is prominently for Poland.  At that time Poland belonged to Germany.  We saw, because the cattle wagon had windows with wire mesh on it.  We saw gray and blue striped prisoners walking around and it sounded like total chaos.  In the evening we saw smoke coming out of square chimneys.  The man next to me, a college graduate, was standing next to me looking out of the so called window and I asked him, “what is that?”  He said “I think that is an eternal fire because that is customary to have in Germany.”

The next morning at about 5:30 the cattle wagon opened.  The S.S. came in and were yelling “Get out fast.  Move!”  We get out and uh they separated the men and women.  And eh, I walked about 20 feet and I tell my mom that “I think I left a piece of bread in the wagon, I’m going back.”  That was the last time I saw her, the last words I said to her, I never saw her again.

We lined up and the S.S. doctor (and don’t forget after traveling for  3 days people just broke down, even the young people looked old.) he just looked at you, with his hands in white gloves, left or right.  We didn’t know what this meant, left or right.  But it doesn’t take to long to find out.  We walk and end up in a big assembly room.  They told us to take our clothes off and we did.  They removed all body hair.  They rush us to take a shower and when we come out they start throwing clothes.  Striped underwear shirt pants and jacket.  They gave us 20 minutes because different people threw different things and maybe the guy who needs a big one got a small one or needs a small one gets a big one.

We ended up in a barrack. And there was a Swiss citizen prisoner.   He was nonjewish.  We found out he was some sort of political prisoner.  We called him the block elder.  He was in charge of the 500 people that was good for 300 or 250 people.  We asked him, “Where is the rest of our families?”  He said, “How long have you been here?’ We told him that we gotten in this morning but we’ve only been out for less than an hour.  He just walked outside, took a deep breath and said, “Then they are just arriving.”  It was very clear, at least a few seconds later the whole thing spread among us that they got gassed and cremated.

It started to rain, and about an hour later they gave us black water and some bread mixed with saw dust.  It was about half a pound of bread.  They gave us a plate.  There was a container, like the orange barrels but it was metal.  They told us that we had to put the plate at the edge of the barrel straight.  I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to know that if you tilt it it’s not straight.  But right in front of me, a man named Doctor Powell, he was a war decorated veteran of the Hungarian-Austrian empire.  This short man in an S.S. uniform asked for the ladle.  When Doctor Powell went to the container he just smack him in his face.  Blood went all over the place.  He was fluent in German and he asked the officer, “Why?”  He says because you did not put your plate flat.  I can still visualize it, I can still see it in my mind, his muscles and veins get tight and he just walked away.

When we get back to the barracks he tells us “I could kill that rat with my own two hands, but the reason I don’t is because I know how it would affect the rest of you.”  That night he ran into the electric fence and kill himself. He couldn’t take the abuse, the dehumanization.

Later in 1935, sometime in July, Dr. Powell had a daughter Anna Powell who survived.  When I went back to my hometown I saw her.  She asked me if I had seen her father. I kept silent and close my mouth.  She knew there was something I knew.  She says” you’re not going to tell me anything that I don’t know, I want to know if you’ve seen my father.”  I break down and start crying.  She knows there’s something I know.  She said to calm down, that she had to accept everything.  Then I told her what happened.

I only stayed about a week or 10 days in Auschwitz and I saw the height of the gassings and cremating.  They only had 5 crematoriums.  They were working 24 hours but they were not capable of getting rid of all of the bodies.  So we dug trenches and threw the bodies into them, put some oil and gasoline onto them and burned them.  The human flesh has a special odor when it burns. It’s extremely recognizable.  As I speak to you I can smell the odor.

A week or 10 days later we were shipped in the cattle wagon again.  We sat crouched down with 50 people.  This was the largest camp in Austria with 52 sub camps.  The camp existed since august of 1938.  Again I had never heard of it before.  Those places were unknown to all of us.  We get out at Mauhausen.  We walk about 3 ½ miles.  When we get there I learned one thing.  I learned one thing.  We had to walk arm in arm.  I learned to assemble on the inside. Anyone on the outside would get the worst beating, for not reason.  They swore at us called us “stupid idiots” and told us to move, walk.

We walked through the gates.  I saw two machine guns in the watch towers.  There was a changing of the guards and of the ammunition.  I thought they were going to execute us, but they didn’t.  In the camp there were three kinds of prisoners.  The ones with red triangles were political prisoners, black triangles were criminals, and the green were homosexuals.

This one person was barring the number 14 he had been there since 1938.  He spoke Hungarian.  So other people asked him (I was listening) where are we? What is the situation?  He said it wasn’t too bad, “When we started building the camp in 1941, the stone quarry there with 186 steps, out of 100 people that went to work at what they called death row,” about 18 people came back.  Today is much better.  About 75 people usually come back.”

My number was 68840.  One Saturday we were shipped with the train to Melch.  At Melch, an old military camp, there were German French, some Italian.  9, 000 1700 were Jews.   Monday we were taken to work, to build a tunnel.  They were going to hide the German armament underground making it difficult to destroy.  In think it June 11, the ally bombed the camp because they were still under the impression it still a military camp.  They did not know it was converted to a concentration camp. I working on the day shift.  We work for 2 shift. Day shift afternoon and night shift.  You see those jackhammers on the street.  That what I working with.  But the Allied is bombed the camp.  Over 300 people died.  I don’t have any knowledge how many was injured.  But the injured also died because nobody could care for them.  They don’t want any sick people.

The same day when this air raid is happening, 14 prisoner tried to be escape.  Now you have to take consideration that all of us is bald.  Every week we get about two inch wide striped shaved into the forehead to the neck. So even if you have a cap they could recognize you because the cap is not covered all the way.  If you try to pull it down it shows in the front of you if you pull it forward it shows in the back.  So anyway knows if you escape.  The air raid happens before 11:30 and 12 in the morning.

It was Sunday.  14 prisoners all 14 got captured and the gallows had been set up.  The camp commander, who I have a picture of, he get captured, came in and asked if there were any priest or rabbi.  I think all together there was five.  He forced them to put the ropes around their necks.  You know just humiliate the individual.  Make a subhuman.

Again I’m telling you the story what I heard I discovered 1946 February.  The next day the camp commander when to the shoe repair shop.  Now the shoe repair shop was not for us because we only in the wooden clog. It for the camp guard and the S.S. personal.  The prisoners had to do repairs on their own. The Hungarian man, name is George Neibwier, he speak fluent German.  The camp commander asking him, “do you know where I was yesterday during the air raid?”  He very properly answered “no.”  And he says.  My wife I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe drinking coffee.  And you know those criminals that try to be escape all of them was political.  I made justice in executing them.  At 8:30 my wife and I went to Salzburg to the concert.  I can’t say.  So we went to the concert he says.

Now I make up my mind I don’t want to talk about this one.  I purposely want to wipe it out of my mind.  But you know what? Every time I cross the threshold in the Severance hall this picture is comes back.  This man having coffee 11:30-12 with his wife at the sidewalk coffee and between five and six he is executing 14 person, then he goes to concert.  I can not comprehend what kind of person this is. I can’t not comprehend it.

The follow up on this one is, I told you before, I discovered the whole story in 1946 February in Budapest.  He turned out to be George Niebwier, a doctor George Neibwier a gynecologist.  He never disclosed that he was a doctor because of the research in the camps for how to produce twins; tall, blonde, blue eyed, perfect Germans. He did not want to do the research, any part of the research.  He told them when they asked him what was his trade, a cobbler.  That’s what he said.  And also he spoke fluent German because he went to medical school in Munich Germany.

I became very close friends, remember of 9,000 people were my age, most people were five or ten years older.  George is no longer, he died.  When Sandy was born he helped bring him into this world. (Sandy is my uncle’s son.)

You know I could sit here with you until tomorrow morning and still not tell you everything.  I am not here to tell you my hunger, my sickness…I’m here.  I’m a messenger.  I have many times been asked since, what is made me survive, or what is how I survived.  I really don’t know exactly.  I was one time on a panel.  I only want to ask you… what I’m telling you now… I don’t condemn you for what you believe.  Since then when I experienced I don’t believe in God.  I only believe in people. There are good and bad.  But I don’t make judgments on people that believe in God.  I am not angry about it.  But only one thing I ask, don’t get angry if I don’t believe.  I believe you if you are a decent person. What ever church you go…what ever religion you practice, it is your own private business, and I am not condemning anyone.  I only ask you, do not condemn me because I do not practice any religion.  But if you do there is nothing you can do about it because my mind is made.  So basically I lost the faith.

I was on a panel of 7. Out of the seven 5 said God helped them survive.  I told them the truth, I just want to live.  Probably I was very much prepared, accepted on my fait.  On reason, something always on my mind.  I don’t want to die there way, I want to die my way.  I don’t want to give thme the satisfaction.  I could show you the healed skin.  I just didn’t want someone to beat me to death or shoot me.  I couldn’t prevent it but I tried to avoid it.

I told many times the story , I discussed it with Agi (his wife) yesterday, it was 1945 February…I was in very bad shape.  I don’t give up on myself but I could very much feel this, prepared to die.  When they took us to work in the train, to work on the tunnel project, the train went through the tunnel.  The tunnel was built in the early 19th century.  I’ll never forget it was an afternoon shift, I watched one guard, he was probably 42 44 years old but he looked much older.  Some reason I read on his face that he was tired of the war.  He was not a soldier.  I positioned myself to the sliding door, it was dark in the tunnel, so when the train is went in the tunnel, its cold, I have 5 cigarettes ( didn’t smoke then) and  out of the five, two of them are my friends.  He was my age. He never came back.  When the train went to the tunnel, I touched the overcoat of the guard and I whispered to the guard that I had five cigarettes.  The expectation was he give me some bread because I saw a bread basket on his shoulder.  I got nothing.  Now I have to explain to my friend Laslo.  When we coming back at night, the train went into the same tunnel, I am again in the same place.  He went to his bread basket and he give me the bread crust.  I don’t think the bread crust has a calorie value, but when he give it to me, I think that it helped my survival.  It somehow restored some faith in man kind.  He was a guard.  When I touched him he could shoot me.  He don’t need to have any explanation.  I think this mid February.  I can not remember the date because we had no calendar so if I tell you a date it could be right it could be wrong.  This thing gave me such and uplift.

No matter how physically you are in bad shape, if you are mentally is destroyed you are dead.  You could be dead with a healthy body if you mentally dead.  For some reason this gave me a mental uplift.   I don’t want to say I restored confidence in the human being, but it greatly contributed to my faith.

It became March.  And April 11th the camp has been evacuated from Melch to Ebensee.  The Russians are about 26 miles from our camp.  There are few more things I want to tell you. May 7 1945 exactly one year, and also Sunday, the American army at about 2:55 liberated us.  You see that picture here.  You see that rainbow.  I don’t believe in miracles.  Agi and I was there at that camp in 1995 the 50th year anniversary.  At 2:55 between 3 and 3:30 was a rainbow.  50 years later at about the same time Agi took this picture.  The rainbow.

Here come the hardest part.  After the liberation I am not even 16.  Prior to being liberated I ended up in a barrack where the people who can not move, 30 meters from the crematorium. They had us there so they didn’t have to hull us too far to the crematorium.  The other kid, he came from the same town. He were special.  They got more portions.  They have to work for the Luftwaffe they targeted younger men for their sexual needs.  One of my hometown kids was targeted.  He was a lover for the Copo.  He died about two years ago.  He had some privilege so he came to the barrack about 2 days before the liberation.  He told me to get out of there.

In the morning I would wake up with a dead body at my arm at my leg.  I am not afraid for dead people.  They can not hurt me.  He took me to his barrack and gave me food.  But I was scared that if they counted the people they would know I was missing and come and find me and shoot me. Maybe that bowl of soup was help, but I doubt it.  Saturday morning, there was 28,000 prisoner more were brought into this camp.  The camp commanders ask if we can put a fight with Americans.  They don’t want the Americans to kill us they want us to go to the tunnel. All 28,000 of us at the same time say  in German “No!”  We also found out the entrance to the tunnel there was a place for dynamite and if we go in they blow up the entrance and none us survive.  He walked away.  The next day the S.S. were gone something like the National Guard came.  Later we were liberated.

Now here comes the hardest part.  It doesn’t take to long to start thinking who I am, what I am, where I am going after this war?  About two and half three weeks later I take a train back to Hungary.   I get to my hometown.  It was a balmy July night.  I remember as a kid it took about 25 comfortably from our home to the railroad station, but at approximately at 2:30am, with nobody on the street, I could hear my own step, It was almost 5:30 now.  I did not think many years past by in my life before I discovered myself.  I walking, I walk extremely slow because I still remember the point in the certain part of the city, main street, when I say to myself, “maybe just a bad dream, it’s not true what I seen what I experienced and from that point I slower walking.  The closer I get to the house the slower I walk.  I practically drag my body.  I know once I get to that house there is no more dreaming, no more hallucination, no more waiting, there is nobody but myself.  I did not want to face this.  I did not want to face reality.  This is it.


Analysis: His Story Lives On (Danielle Vigh)

My Uncle’s story somewhat reminded me of “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien.  Like the soldiers in the story my Uncle also carried something.  He did not always carry physical things he carried perhaps the most important things; memories and the will to live.

Andrew Sternberg carried himself.  He kept himself alive; he did not want the German Army to have their way with him.  He told me that if he was going to die, he was going to die his own way and not because of the dehumanization the Germans caused.  When he thought that he could not survive anymore someone carried him.  The officer in the train gave him bread that perhaps saved his life.  His friend carried him out of the bunker, where those who could not walk were kept, and gave him soup.  This too may have saved his life.

My Uncle carries the knowledge of how his family and thousands of others died.  He did not get to say goodbye to them or hug them goodbye.  His last words to his mother were “I think I left some bread in the wagon I’m going back.”  He met and made friends with several people in the camps.  They told him their stories and the stories of their lost ones and what they had seen.   He carries these memories with him even today.  He carries the memory of his old camp leader and what he did on the day fourteen people were hung.  Even today he can not put down this memory.  Walking into Severance Hall brings back memories he has tried again and again to wipe out.

He did not finish school when he returned to Hungary.  He had missed eight years of formal education and college was not for him.  His aunt, who he later discovered was alive and then moved in with her, warned him against college.  She told him that he would go to school and move to another country where his degree was worthless.  My Uncle was also uncomfortable with college life. They had to live on the University campus and the dorms reminded him of the Concentration camps.  He carries this fear with him.

Andy carries Love.  He married a school teacher from Hungary and bore a son.  He carries this love for his wife and son. He also carries love for the men who saved him, who liberated him and all the others.  These things are like none of the others; these things he carries comforts him and brings him hope.

Mr. Sternberg is one of the few survivors of the Holocaust.  He carries memories for the future.  He tells these stories to others hoping that they too will carry these stories on for generations.  These stories teach people about the hate that existed in the world and the hate that still does exist.  He reminds us all to look to Rwanda before we say that this type of hate is gone.

Like many of our readings beliefs played a large role in my Uncles life.  Unfortunately he lost this belief because of his experience.  He does not force his view on anyone he just hopes others accept his views as he accepts others.  This is similar to the main character in “Down in My Heart.”  He did not believe in the war but unlike the others he did not force his pacifism on others.

I believe that even though O’Brien’s work is fictitious, he too is trying to pass on the knowledge of the war experience to future generations to come.  Because he tells us no war story is fully true, it does not diminish the meaning of the story.  Something is always learned, lost, or gained.  I tend to believe that my Uncles story is true.  I believe that perhaps his war story is one that O’Brien was not including in his definition of a “true war story.”

This interview revealed a new side to the war story we had touched very little on.  Most of what we read was written from the view point of a soldier or civilian.  My Uncle was a civilian but he was more directly involved in the war.  When he was taken prisoner I believe that he became less of a civilian and more of a solider; even if the war he was fighting was not the war of a soldier.    In Slaughter House Five the narrator was at one point a prisoner of war and made to work in the slaughter house.  My uncle was also made to work, but unlike my Uncle he returned to something.  He returned to his loving wife and family.  My Uncle returned to nothing.  Although O’Brien claims that there is no “true” war story, I believe my Uncles is true.  He was greatly affected by the war and when he tells the story one can see the truth in his eyes.

I believe that his entire story is important, every moment of it.  Survivors of the Holocaust are few and hard to come by.  Soon they will be gone and there will be no one left to tell the story exactly how it had taken place.  Stories will become skewed and people will forget them.  It is important for us all to listen to stories like Andrew Sternberg’s and absorb everything we hear.  Hours and hours of interviews are preserved in video documentaries for generations to come. Twenty-seven nationalities were affected by the Holocaust and without these stories, lessons will be forgotten; or perhaps my Uncle is right in saying that we learned nothing from this war and that the lesson is long forgotten.