On the occasion of his 90th birthday and after plenty of “noodging” from the family, Holocaust survivor Catriel Fuchs finally decided to commit his amazing story to paper. Now 92, Catriel has written and published his autobiography, which, loosely translated, is entitled More luck than judgement.
“But don’t go rushing to the next book store,” he jokes, “because only ten copies exist. They contain the memory of my murdered family, of my youth, and are dedicated to my family, of course, and to my seven great grandchildren, aged from two-and-a-half to 13. One copy is in Yad Vashem.”
Catriel, originally Karl, was born in December 1925 in Vienna, to his parents Helena and Aaron, and so he was not yet a teenager when the Nazis invaded his home city in March 1938. By way of an introduction, he says: “I’m a survivor and as such I carry around many things with me, dreams, disappointments, highs and lows.
“I was 12-and-a-half years old in 1938. How could I know [what was happening], but I realised the dark times were coming. I was already in an orphanage. The last time I saw a schoolroom from the inside was when I was about 13. By then, of course, the orphanage was closed and school was over for me.”
His eventual escape was orchestrated by the Youth Aliyah movement, but it initially suffered a perilous mishap.
“I escaped twice,” Catriel explains. “It was organised by the city of Graz. We were accompanied to the border by a battalion of German soldiers. As we reached the border, they said ‘run’, because on the other side there was an exchange of border guards. There, we were met by Yugoslav smugglers. We were told that a train would stop in the middle of the night, a wagon would be open, jump in, and you’ll be taken to Zagreb.
“Well, I woke up in the morning and there was nobody there, nobody. I was totally alone. I didn’t know where I was and I didn’t know the language. A very sympathetic gendarme accompanied me, on foot, all the way back to the border, and there, on the other side, stood an SA man.
“‘Who are you,’ he asked. And I replied, ‘Ich bin wieder da’, I’m back. I think that saved me. He thought I was an Austrian runaway. I was there for two or three days, before I jumped on a train and after a while, I realised it was going in the wrong direction, back to Vienna. I had ten Reichsmark, virtually nothing, and no papers. I was nobody.
“The train was full of Germans and soldiers, and the conductor was making his way up the train. Opposite me was a young woman. She’s an angel in my eyes. We didn’t exchange a word, because it was forbidden for Jews to even look a German woman in the eye. She must have seen that something was wrong with me, because when the conductor came, she said ‘he is with me’.
“I was there, in what is today the Hauptbahnhof. Where will I go? To my poor mother. I walked through the streets, though a Jew wasn’t allowed out past 9 o’clock. It was past midnight. I knocked on my mother’s door, and I hear from inside, “yes, yes, I’m coming”, she was certain that it was Gestapo. At that time of night who comes knocking at the door?
“Anyway, I had to do the same thing all over again. By this time, there were no youngsters around anymore. We walked through the Karpaten, [Carpathian mountains]. It was slippery, and I carried a little boy on my shoulders all the way, until we reached the Drau river. They stuffed us into the baggage compartment of a taxi and off we went. I woke up in Zagreb, with a 40 degree fever. I survived even that!”
Catriel was speaking at the University of Haifa alongside Hannah Miriam Lessing, Secretary General of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for the victims of National Socialism. His story can be read, in German, courtesy of the Austrian Heritage Archive.
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