Über-Survivor, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

In Salzburg last summer, a friend of mine died. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town. It was raining, as it probably should at a funeral or burial. Two people presided over the ceremony. One was a rabbi, the other the president of the local Jewish community. (I learned this only later.)

After the burial, a friend of mine remarked, “That man is 100 years old.” He was speaking of the community president. “And he survived just about every concentration camp you’ve ever heard of. He once quipped, ‘I could write a Michelin guide to the camps.’”

I did not believe that this man was 100 years old. He appeared to be in his 70s — 80, tops. He seemed in very good shape, with crisp speech and a quick gait. But someone else confirmed: Yes, he is 100. I decided I would try to talk to this man. And I did, about a week later, in his office.

My story appeared in the September 16 National Review. It was called “Über-Survivor: Marko Feingold flourishes at 100.” I would like to expand on this story here on the website.

He has a very, very good memory, Mr. Feingold does. His memories begin in 1916. He was three years old at the time. The Feingold family lived in Vienna, and there were four children: All of them were boys, and one was a baby, Emil. Their father was off at war. Their mother habitually rose at 4 to stand in line for milk and bread. She took her ration card, and she took her baby.

Women with babies got to the head of the line faster. That was important, because sometimes the city ran out of bread and milk.

It was cold in the winter, and the baby caught pneumonia and died. The way Mr. Feingold puts it today is, “Three of us lived, because our brother died.” He means that there was milk and bread for the children at home because their mother took the baby, when she rose in the cold and went for food.

Mr. Feingold has clear, specific memories of that first war, not just general ones. He remembers the deprivations in Vienna. He remembers exactly what the bread looked and tasted like: It was all crumbs, not able to hang together. He remembers when his sister, Rosa, came along, in 1918. The other kids were put of the house while she was being born. He was five and a half years old when the war ended.

He was born on May 28, 1913 (more than a year before the war began). He would experience the next war too, of course. He survived four concentration camps: Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Dachau, and Buchenwald.

Let me stress how hard it is to believe that he’s 100. He talks in great long paragraphs. The words come very easily. He seems never to pause, or to scratch his head, or to stumble. He’s in full command of facts, names, dates. He never says “um.” He apparently does not tire.

He has almost a full head of hair, and much of it is dark. It doesn’t look dyed, either. He is a handsome, dashing gent, with a twinkle in his eye. Almost raffish, I would say. The mustache contributes to this impression.

Before World War II came the Depression, of course. In Vienna, people were sleeping on bridges. Mr. Feingold and his brother Ernst went down to Italy, where life was sweeter. They were there from 1932 to 1938. Mr. Feingold says those were his six fat years: his best years.

In early ’38, he and Ernst returned to Vienna, to get their passports renewed. The Anschluss took place on March 12. They were trapped. Arrested by the Nazis, they commenced an unimaginable ordeal.

Never believe, says Mr. Feingold, that Austria was the “first victim” (as propaganda once had it). Never believe that the country was unwillingly occupied by the Germans. Most Austrians rejoiced in the Anschluss. “The country welcomed the Germans with open arms.”

I ask Mr. Feingold, “Did you ever suspect that your neighbors — that Austrians — would turn on Jews, murderously?” No, he says, never. He experienced plenty of anti-Semitic discrimination, but he had no inkling that Austrians would turn on the Jews murderously, genocidally.

He and Ernst were the first Austrians to be confined at Auschwitz. The camp was still under construction. From Auschwitz, Mr. Feingold was sent on to one camp after the other. “For every day in these camps,” he says, “you could write a whole book.” You could devote an entire book to each day in one of those camps. Mr. Feingold has written his memoirs (available only in German). Their title might be translated “When You’ve Already Died, You Feel No Pain.”

I will say very little about what Mr. Feingold endured. There is no need for a catalogue. There was torture, starvation — the usual evils. I will mention just one detail: He and other inmates were forced to dig a canal with their bare hands.

The Feingold family? I can tell you this: Ernst was killed in 1942. The fates of the other two siblings — Rosa and Nathan — are unknown, specifically. But they can be presumed killed in the Holocaust.

As for Marko Feingold, he was still in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, when the Americans came in. He and other Austrians in the camp walked the few miles to Weimar. Then they got on buses and headed home.

I ask Mr. Feingold, “How did you survive the camps? Luck, bravery, skill, some combination?” He smiles and says — more like sighs — one word: “Zufall.” That means chance, coincidence, happenstance, amazing turns of events. For example, he was classified as “gassable” at Neuengamme. But the crematoria at the camp were not ready yet. Meanwhile, he was shipped to Dachau . . .

That’s probably enough to say in one day. I’ll conclude these notes tomorrow.

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