Concentration camp survivor speaks at Boonsboro High

Emanuel "Manny" Mandel sees it as his responsibility to share his story

January 04, 2011|By JANET HEIM |
  • Emanuel "Manny" Mandel talks with Boonsboro High School students about his experience as a survivor of a concentration camp in World War II.
Yvette May, Staff Photographer

BOONSBORO — Emanuel "Manny" Mandel was 7 years old when he and his mother were sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, but he said his memory of it is "crystal clear."

While the implications of that train ride were unclear to him at the time, the 75-year-old Holocaust survivor now sees it as his responsibility to share his story.

"The main thing I learned since is that I need to talk about it. You will talk to your parents and some day you might talk to your children. It's so you in some way have a broader sense of the world," Mandel said to a group of Boonsboro High School students during one of two presentations he made at the school Tuesday.

English teacher Sarah Hamilton invited Mandel to speak to English and social studies students at the school, at the request of student Chelsey Hutzell.

Chelsey's younger sister heard Mandel speak in October to students at Boonsboro Middle School, where his granddaughter, Alex Mandel, is an eighth-grader. Chelsey, a sophomore, is a student in Hamilton's English II class.

The class had just finished reading "Night," a book by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel with his account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. The students also completed a Holocaust-related project.

"Since we were reading the book and learning about the experience, I thought it would be cool to hear firsthand experience," Chelsey said.

She added that she didn't trust everything that is written online about the Holocaust.

"It was memorable. I will never forget this," said Chelsey, who did her project on the experience inside the concentration camps.

"My hope is that the students can ask questions of someone who has the answers. A firsthand source is always more real, because they can respond naturally to questions," Boonsboro High Principal Peggy Pugh said.

Mandel was born in Latvia in 1936, but his family moved to Budapest, Hungary, shortly after his birth when his father accepted a position as cantor — music minister — in a synagogue.

He remembers traveling to southern Hungary for a winter visit with his mother's family. Police officers came to the door taking a census, and residents were forced to march away from their homes.

Mandel's family was spared because a police officer recognized them from Budapest and realized they were visiting, but other families were shot and their bodies were found in the Danube River months later, Mandel said.

After that, Jews were required to wear yellow stars, which often resulted in verbal and physical abuse. Mandel said someone always followed him to school to make sure he got there safely.

His father wouldn't allow Manny to get a bike, afraid it would be stolen from him because he was Jewish.

Mandel said Hungary was not overrun with German Nazis, but was under the rule of the Hungarian Nazi party, whose symbol was crossed arrows instead of the swastika.

The laws for Jews became stricter with time and the telephone was removed from the family's Budapest apartment. Then, they no longer were allowed to have a maid. The maid offered to take Manny back to her village, thinking it would be safer than the city, but his parents refused her offer.

Mandel's grandmother lived with them in Budapest, but had problems with her feet and it became difficult for her to navigate five flights of stairs during air raids. She returned to her village for safety, but later died in Auschwitz.

"Maybe if I'd have gone with the maid, I'd have died in Auschwitz," Mandel said.

After France, Germany and Austria were "cleaned of Jews," it was Hungary's turn. Mandel's family was part of a group of 1,700 Hungarian Jews who left the country by train, expecting to arrive in Switzerland as part of an exchange for Allied materials.

When negotiations broke down, Manny, an only child, and his mother ended up at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they lived from June to December 1944, after sharing a nine-day ride in a boxcar with 80 people. They were separated from his father, who was assigned to a labor battalion.

Mandel said every morning they were fed a coffee-like substance and bread, followed by an afternoon meal of stew. Many people in the camps died because of being overworked and underfed.

Typhus was rampant in Bergen-Belsen and Mandel's mother insisted they survived because she made sure they washed themselves every day.

Manny came down with a chest ailment, which caused his mother great fear because many people who were taken to the infirmary did not survive. He recovered after being treated by being wrapped in cloths and mustard to keep him warm.

Eventually, the trade negotiation was resolved and Mandel and his mother were taken to Switzerland in late 1944. He said the first thing the Swiss did was fumigate them.

"For me, that was the end of the war," Mandel said.

In 1945, after eight months at a children's home, Mandel and his mother emigrated to Palestine, where they were reunited with Manny's father. Mandel and his parents survived the Holocaust, but other family members were never seen after they were taken to Auschwitz, Mandel said.

At the beginning of World War II, there were 600,000 Jews in Hungary, more than one-third of them in Budapest. By the end of the war, two-thirds of them had been killed, Mandel said.  

In response to students' questions, Mandel said he did not have a numbered tattoo because that happened at Auschwitz. Nor did he see anyone get shot, although he remembers hearing gunfire occasionally, he said.

In 1949, Mandel and his parents traveled to New York, then settled in Philadelphia in 1950, where Manny's aunt lived.

"In my family, we shared these experiences and stories as much as we could, so we would know. We didn't play "Ssshhh," because it wasn't helpful," Mandel said.

Mandel and his wife, Adrienne, live in Silver Spring, Md., and have been married 52 years. They met in high school at a youth conference in Philadelphia.

Adrienne was a speaker because she was president for the four-state region, including her home state of New Jersey. They started dating years later and have two children and three grandchildren.

Mandel was one of 30 American Holocaust survivors invited to Bergen-Belsen in April 2010 to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.

He works part time as an adult, adolescent and family therapist. Mandel has volunteered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since it opened in 1993 and is quick to accept invitations to tell his story, he said.

"We survivors are a diminishing resource. I'm 75. I find it to be very important. The firsthand experience will disappear when we die," Mandel said.


On the Web

To view Mandel's personal page on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, go to and type in Emanuel Mandel to search.

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