John Spitzer survived the Holocaust, communism and Hurricane Katrina.
He was just 17 when his life changed forever.
John Spitzer lived in a ghetto in Hungary during the Holocaust and his family was sent to Auschwitz, never to be seen again. He not only survived the Holocaust, but also communism and Hurricane Katrina.
Spitizer, 89, told his horrifying tale to ninth-grade students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr on March 29. The Holocaust Education and Reflection Club at Barrack organized the event.
“I’m the most experienced refugee you can think of,” Spitzer said. “The Germans were decent. I mean, they didn’t kill me. I wonder today, how did we all survive?”
According to Spitzer, Jews made up 5 percent of the Hungarian population prior to the Holocaust.
Born an only child in Baja, his father, Sigmund, died in 1942 during surgery. His mother, Irene, raised him until the Nazis killed her a few years later.
Although there was anti-Semitism, life was peaceful as a child, he said.
Things got bad around 1939 and 1940, when the Holocaust picked up steam and anti-Jewish laws were promulgated in Hungary. The Germans occupied the country in March 1944.
“Hitler insisted that the last group of Jews in Europe had to be eliminated,” said Spitzer, noting that Jews in Budapest had a 50 percent chance of surviving, while Jews in the rest of the country had only a 10 percent chance.
A year after Spitzer’s father passed away, Baja was taken over by the Nazis. They built a ghetto, which was one of 56 in the country. Immediately, people were transported to Auschwitz.
Spitzer said 450,000 Jews were wiped out of the country in a span of only two months.
One of the first things the Nazis did was convert a synagogue into a warehouse for stolen goods, guns and boots. Spitzer was assigned to unload and load the trucks with those items, which helped save his life.
He still wonders why he was not killed.
“If [a Nazi] didn’t like John Spitzer, he could have killed him on the spot,” he said. “Nobody would have noticed the difference.”
Spitzer noted how there was always a looming question as to what would happen after the war, when the Soviets took over Hungary. Would the Nazis kill the Jews to get rid of the evidence or just leave?
As it turned out, many just left. Spitzer eventually made his way back home, where he finished high school, then went to medical school in Budapest.
Prior to that, at a Sweet 16 party, he met his future wife, Judy.
But communism eventually took hold, so he hired a smuggler to get him out of the country. The night of the escape, Spitzer saw he was headed farther into Hungary and not toward Vienna as planned, so he leaped from the truck.
With the help of non-Jews, his wife and her family obtained fake papers and immigrated to the Philadelphia area a few years before him in 1949. Spitzer, who now had his medical degree, got a job teaching in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The distance did not keep the couple apart, and two years later they got married. He knew things were better in Philadelphia, because when he arrived he had two pairs of underwear, compared to when he fled Hungary with just one.
The couple moved to New Orleans in 1973, where they resided for 32 years. The day before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, they packed up and left. Eight feet of water claimed their home.
Looking back on his life, Spitzer noted how he never lost faith in God. He considers himself religious and attends Shabbat services every week at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.
One of his fellow congregants is Dori Hoffman, 15, a freshman at Barrack.
She sits behind him every week in synagogue, but never knew his whole story. She said hearing the history hit home, because her third cousins, Rivka and Rachel Josephs, and great-grandfather, Yehuda Lev-Josephs, are also survivors from Hungary.
“It’s nice to get more personal information from someone that you care a lot about,” Hoffman said.
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