John Woolf, born in Eastern Europe in the village Buštino, Czechoslovakia, in an area known as CarpathoRuthenia, is a Holocaust survivor. His father owned and managed the flour mill in Buštino, and his family lived a good life until 1939, when the Hungarians occupied his village. John was the only child of his parents, Kato and Herman. In May of 1944, under orders from the Germans, Hungarian forces ordered all Jews to leave the village, and Woolf and his family began their nightmarish journey through transit camps, concentration camps and death marches. John, his father and mother all miraculously survived their ordeals but had become separated from each other. Eventually they were reunited. Many of John’s friends and relatives were not so fortunate, including his grandmother Amalia, who upon arrival in Auschwitz was sent to the gas chamber holding the hand of her only other grandchild, five year old Erika Roth.
After the war, John, his mother and father—with the help of their uncle Ernest—emigrated to the U.S. and built new lives. John became a successful aerospace engineer and, ultimately, a volunteer and board member of the Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center. He now lives on Long Island.
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© 2009 Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (formerly known as the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center) at Brookdale Community College, and the Brookdale Community College Foundation. All rights reserved worldwide.
This photograph dates back to 1905 when my maternal grandparents, Amalia and Ignatz Roth were married.
My mother was the apple of her father's eye and she and her brothers had a comfortable life growing up in Carei. Here is a picture of Mother taken in Transylvania before she met my father.
My father came from a much bigger family than my mother. These are my paternal grandparents Sose and Gyula Wolf. Grandfather Gyula was not alive when I was born. I am named after him. Father spoke of him often, always with respect.
A favorite photograph: my elegant and stylish parents on their honeymoon in Venice, Italy.
This picture is of the mill owners (my parents) and the mill crew in 1928 in Buštino, Czechoslovakia. The mill was a grain mill powered by a manmade branch of the Talabor River. Father's family owned the rights to use the water to power the mill since it was gifted to us by Franz Joseph, the AustroHungarian monarch. I'm in the photo as well. Mother was pregnant with me at the time this picture was taken.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Some of the changing spellings of the town's name are: Buštino or Bustina (Czech); Bustyahaza (Hungarian); Bushtyna (Ruthenian); Bistina (Yiddish); Bushtyno (Ukrainian).
Now I am smiling! I am 4 in this picture. Father had frequent business trips to Prague and on one of them, he purchased this Bavarian outfit. It was an instant hit with me!
This is a picture of the tricycle race that took place in Buštino, Czechoslovakia in 1934. My Uncle Ernest did all of the decorations on my tricycle. That's me on the left, and my friend and coconspirator Tibi, who is ten days older than me, on the right. We both won this race. Tibi survived Auschwitz and lives in France.
Here I am spending a day with my friends on the bank of the Talabor River. We went swimming regularly. This was the last summer we had the freedom to live like this.
The boy on the top of the pyramid is Erwin Brandstein. The boy holding Erwin is my cousin Imi Schwartz. I am standing on the left. The girl next to me is Iboya Simsowitz. The women standing in the middle and 3rd from the right are Mimi Pickel and Mimi Lautman, 2nd from the right is Jossi Adler, 1st on right is Pali Kraus. The girl on the lower left is Judit Bruckstein. Next to her on the ground in the middle is my cousin Bela Greger. Zsovka Bruckstein is the girl lying on the ground in front.
Imi was murdered in Auschwitz along with his sister Jutka, his mother Tubi and his father Kalman Schwartz. When the family was being deported, Kalman grabbed onto the gate of his home, refusing to leave. The gendarme was a local man who knew Kalman and said to him, "Schwartz, do you want me to shoot you here in front of your family or will you go with them?" He went with his family to Auschwitz where they were all murdered.
Zsovka died in a car accident as a bride prior to the deportation to the ghetto; Iboya survived Auschwitz; Mimi Lautman survived hiding in the woods with a doctor's family; my cousin Bela was murdered in Auschwitz. Mimi Pickel survived Auschwitz and now lives in Sweden. Judit Bruckstein survived Auschwitz and went to Prague and married my Uncle Andrew. I never was able to find out what happened to Jossi Adler.
In June 1944 we were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau by cattle car. Upon arrival, as we were pushed and pulled out of the cattle cars into the chaos on the ramp, prisoners in striped uniforms came up to me, pointed and said, "How old?" When I answered "Fifteen," they harshly responded: "No, eighteen!" There was no more said, but we knew then that at the time of selection, I was to say my age was eighteen.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Age was a fundamental criterion of selection for slave labor. As a rule, in Jewish transports, all children under sixteen, and the elderly were condemned to death. In 1944, the age limit was lowered to fourteen, but at the time of John's transport, the Polish prisoners who met the train stated eighteen as the age for consideration for slave labor.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Beginning on March 19, 1944, the Hungarian and German authorities transported around 440,000 people out of Hungary, most of them to AuschwitzBirkenau, where the German SS murdered more than two thirds of them in the gas chambers upon arrival.
Photo from The Auschwitz Album. Image © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/USHMM
Father and I stayed in this miserable place, Birkenau, for about 10 days. We lived like animals, stuffed in these long huts. At nighttime, German SS officers would come along with long sticks and hit us over our heads.
Image © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/USHMM
We were tattooed on the arm and then, being the lucky ones, we were marched to Auschwitz. To them I no longer had a name; I was now A13758.
In early January, Auschwitz had to be evacuated because of the approaching Soviet army. We were sent on a march, now known as a death march. When we started, there were about 4,000 of us.
In 1946, the American embassy was established in Prague. As soon as it was open I registered the three of us for immigration to the United States. Here is my father's paperwork.
We finally had a picture taken of our family of three now living in our new country. Our names were changed; Uncle Ernest's friends thought they should be more American. I was no longer Julius, but now John. Mother became Catherine. Father's name Herman was fine. Our last name was changed from Wolf to Woolf as everyone seemed to think the new spelling was less Jewish.
I came to visit my parents whenever I could. By 1960, we counted ourselves lucky that we were comfortable in the United States. With Uncle Ernest, we were a family of four. Yet it was bittersweet as we could not help but remember our large extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins we had lost in the Holocaust. We immersed ourselves in our lives as Americans and tried to put aside any memories of life before 1946.
Do you remember the favorite photo of mine from my parents' honeymoon? Well in 1965, Mother and Father returned to Venice and recreated it. The brutality of time is etched on their faces, but they are as stylish and elegant as they were in 1927.
Shortly before my mother's health began to fail, I took her to see the Center. After she visited she asked me to donate her "dress", her concentration camp uniform, to the Center. She thought the students who visit might find it interesting. They do.