Erwin: A Holocaust Survivor

By Maggie Satterthwaite, age 16, European American, Massachusetts.

MUNKACS, CZECHOSLOVAKIA, MAY 1944. The German soldiers trampled, raided, and forced his family out of their house and onto a train, which led most of them to their death. This was the moment when World War II confronted Erwin Forley and his family. They watched flames swallow their IDs, while simultaneously feeling their own lives burn to nothing. The happy life that Forely knew as a Czechoslovakian teenager was stolen from him, and soon enough his existence would mean nothing more than a tattoo marking A-9957 on his arm.

Mr. Forely, 92, tells his story to reflect on and share his experiences during the Holocaust, but also to warn today’s society about what may happen if we continue to choose violence over peace and hatred over love.

Before the Nazis arrived in his town, life was normal. For most of his childhood, there was no sign of anti-Semitism or war.

“Life was good. We had parties, we went swimming, we went ice-skating, and we had normal lives… until the end,” says Forley. “Until they took us.”

Forely grew up in Czechoslovakia with a loving and honest family—his father, mother, brother, sister, grandparents, and eight uncles and aunts. By the end of the war in 1945, there were only three survivors in his family—his sister, mother, and himself.

After their capture, Forely’s family was sent off to a ghetto, where they survived off of little food for three weeks. Then, already weak, they were thrown into cattle cars, where one hundred other people were crammed, and were shipped to Auschwitz. At the concentration camp his grandparents and young brother, deemed useless, were sent to a gas chamber. The father of a girl Forely had known in the ghetto told him to “take good care of my daughter,” as he was not optimistic that he would survive.

Forely and his father remained together, but they had to hide their relationship. If an SS (Schutzstaffel in German, meaning Protection Squadron) guard knew that two men were family, one would be beaten to make the other suffer. To avoid this, Forely called his father by his name.

Although he was not beaten in front of his father, he was often threatened with attacks from German Shepherds. These vicious dogs were used by the SS guards for their ability to maim or kill prisoners who misbehaved.

Because Forely and his father were farmers, they continued to work as farmers in Auschwitz for six months. In many ways, this work on the farm saved their lives at first, as they had a purpose in providing for Germany. Although it helped them avoid the gas chambers, it was still extremely dangerous and took place in brutal conditions. Forely, for instance, was hurt while cutting trees and had to go to the hospital, getting separated from his father.

Later, his father was taken to another camp, where he eventually died of hunger.

Just days after Forely was treated for his injury, the Russians liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.

Erwin Forely was free.

Today he says, “I have faith. I am a believer, and that is why I survived.” He explains that his hope and resilience saved his life.

Once Forely left his worst memories behind and reentered life outside of the camp, he found his way back to his childhood home in Munkacs. However, a Russian captain had occupied the house. Forely explained that he used to live there and asked if he could enter his home to move some furniture. The Russian approved.

Inside, Forely pulled out a pair of earrings his father had given his father, earrings he had hidden before being sent to the camp. The earrings were also survivors of WWII, and they now belong to Forely’s granddaughter.

Later, Forely rang the doorbell to his house again, but this time his mother and sister opened the door. Previously unaware that they had survived and returned, he was grateful to reunite with his only living family members. Together they moved around Europe, and Forely went on to study textile engineering at university.

One day, they received a special package. It was from Forely’s uncle, who was in New York. He sent them papers, and soon enough they were on a long journey to America.

Although he would always hate every German his age or older, Forely was able to be positive and optimistic when beginning his new life in New York.

“I didn’t feel out of place,” claims Forely. He was happy in America and felt welcomed.

Forely was once surrounded by death. Now, however, he lives contentedly with his wife of 67 years, with whom he has children and grandchildren.

“She is always helping me. She is my light,” says Forely, as he mentions his wife.

Seventy-five years ago, the only light that Erwin Forely saw was from deadly flames. Now, he sees it instead in the warm, kind faces of his family.

By Maggie Satterthwaite, age 16, European American, Massachusetts.

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