My brother Daniel and I had three grandparents who are Holocaust survivors. Our maternal grandmother, Serena Weiss, was sent to the United States with one sister in 1938 from Czechoslovakia. She lost her entire family, including seven siblings, when she was just 16. Her husband, Louis Weiss, was a partisan fighter, an underground resistance fighter, in Czechoslovakia, who also lost his entire family except for one brother, before coming to America in 1945. Unfortunately, we know very little about Papa Louis’s story, since he passed away when we were very young and never shared his story. Today, we share the story of our grandfather, Alex Kuhn, or to us, Papa.
Alex, also known as Sandor, Kuhn was born in 1931 in Zalalovo, Hungary, and was one of nine children. Because of the anti-Semitic laws dominating the country from a young age, his father lost his job and the family moved around a lot. When he was young, he and a sister were sent to live with their grandfather, Yisrael Meir, in the town of Kisvarda—a small Jewish community. There, he studied at a yeshiva and learned from his grandfather the importance of living a Jewish life, which he would keep with him through the rest of his life. The town was full of extended family, and him and his sister would spend meals at the tables of different family members.
In May 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary. My grandfather and his family, except for his older brother Erno who had been conscripted into the Hungarian army several years earlier, were sent to Auschwitz. At the gates, him and his father were separated from the rest of his family and chosen for the labor camps. The rest of his family were sent to the death camps and perished. My grandfather and his father were held in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they slept several people to a bunk bed and had only weak coffee, soup and moldy bread to live on. On Rosh Hashanah 1944, my grandfather and great-grandfather, along with a group of other prisoners, held a prayer service, with prayer books and a shofar that had been smuggled in. The Nazis discovered what was happening and broke up the service, sending some to the gas chambers and others to other camps. My grandfather and his father were sent to Mauthausen.
At Mauthausen, they walked the infamous steps of death, where they carried large boulders up 170 steps to the top of stone quarry multiple times a day, all the while eating very meager rations. After a few months there, they were sent to airplane factories near Vienna, and my grandfather and great-grandfather were separated. Alex worked building airplanes for the Nazi war effort, sometimes working 24 hour days. By April, the Nazis were beginning to lose the war, and they began shutting down their factories. My grandfather and his fellow prisoners were taken on an eight day death march back to Mauthausen. On this march, a few men who had been with his father told him that he had died three weeks earlier. They slept on the side of the road, and ate raw potatoes from the field. My grandfather said that others basically carried him the last few days. Of the 3,000 people who began the march, only about 300 survived. By the time he got back to Mauthausen, the Nazis had deserted. The next several weeks were a blur, until the Americans liberated them on May 5, 1945. Once liberated, my grandfather was sent to a refugee hospital, because he was suffering from dysentery and typhus.
About a year later, in August 1946, my grandfather came to America under a refugee program for orphaned survivors under 16 years of age. When he arrived in New York three days before Rosh Hashanah, he was told that they could send him to Detroit immediately, in time for the holiday, or if he waited until afterwards, they could send him to California. He chose to Detroit, and was placed with a family. On Rosh Hashanah, my grandfather went to an Orthodox synagogue with his host family and met a Hungarian man, who invited him home for lunch with his family. Shortly after, my grandfather moved in with him, and five years later, he married his daughter, my grandmother. In the 1950’s, he learned that his oldest brother, Erno, had survived the war at a Soviet Prisoner of War camp in Siberia, and was living in Budapest. In the late 1960’s they reunited, and they traveled back and forth many times, including traveling to Israel together on a trip where my family joined. When I was in Budapest in 2007, I had the privilege of spending several days with my great uncle and his family in Budapest.
My grandfather passed away in 2005. He and my grandmother had just celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. By then, he had three children, and six grandchildren. Today, he would have two great grandchildren as well, both named after him. I remember something we would say many times growing up, usually around the Passover Seder table, looking around at his family while we discussed the Jewish people’s journey from bondage to freedom.
It took him 40 years to build his family to the same numbers as they were before the Nazis destroyed his family. He would say that he had lived 60 years longer than he was supposed to, and that each day since then was a gift.
My grandfather sought to make each day meaningful. He was a volunteer and speaker at the Detroit Holocaust Museum, and spoke to school groups around the Midwest. He led multiple March of the Living trips to Poland and Israel, sharing his story with another generation at the same place at Auschwitz where he once held his Rosh Hashanah service. Most importantly, he taught his grandchildren not only the importance of living each and every day to its fullest, but about our Jewish identity, love for Israel, and the importance of justice. The history of my family that I was taught by my grandfather, is one of the reasons that I am pursuing a career in civil rights law and policy, to guarantee that the rule of law is maintained and used to protect its citizens and not to discriminate against them. I know that he would be proud of all of his grandchildren, and the paths we have set for ourselves.