On April 19, 2023, Andy Sarkany, a resident of New Haven, walked through the gates of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, as part of a delegation of 27 adult members of Connecticut’s Jewish community, most of them, like Sarkany, Holocaust survivors. Sarkany, the longtime Donor Services & Campaign Manager. of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, was invited to join the Voices of Hope delegation as part of the 35th annual March of the Living.
“It has been a goal of Voices of Hope to send a delegation to the March of The Living since its inception,” says Kathy Fishman, Voices of Hope Executive Director, who invited Sarkany to join the trip which spends 10 days visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps before heading off to Israel in time to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel Independence Day — in Israel for three days.
“We were slated to go in 2021, but due to the pandemic, we had to cancel our trip,” explains Fishman. “This year, we had a group of 27 people, mostly from Connecticut, that included Andy Sarkany, as well as descendants of survivors, Voices of Hope board members, Rabbi Zerin of West Hartford’s Beth El Temple, Sam Kassow, Voices of Hope educator and historian, and Joel Lohr of Hartford International.
On Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — the group marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau with 10,000 others, mostly students, from 25 countries in triumph of those who survived and in remembrance of the six million Jews murdered.
“Having Andy join us on the trip was truly an honor, as he was one of 45 survivors in attendance. One of the highlights was hearing Andy share his story with 750 students from Panama. They were in awe of his presentation, positivity and the lessons he shared and serenaded him at the end with a rendition of the song Hallelujah,” she said.
Andrew Sarkany's Holocaust story is well known throughout the New Haven Jewish community.
Sarkany was born in Budapest, Hungary on October 31, 1936, just after Hitler rose to power, but before what he calls the "real Holocaust activities" in Hungary took place.
In 1943, he moved with his family into the Seventh district that about a year later became part of the Budapest ghetto. The ghetto was managed by the Arrow Cross party -- Hungary's Nazi party -- who were antisemites and abused the Jews even before the opening of the ghetto.
After Germany occupied Hungary
in March 1944, Adolf Eichman appeared on the Hungarian scene to expedite the transportation of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. Hungary had between approximately 650,000 to 700,000 Jews, the majority living mostly in Budapest and the surrounding big cities. When Eichman came he organized the transport to Auschwitz-Birkeneau of about 550,000 Hungarian Jews. Very few survived. But, because of the location and the circumstances, a large number of people living in the ghetto survived, because the Nazis believed that at the right moment they would just go from building to building and take the Jews to the railroad station and ship them to concentration camps. But they were running out of time. The Soviets were coming much faster than the Nazis anticipated. By the time they realized what was going on, it was too late for rounding up the Jews from the ghetto.
So, over 80,000 Hungarian Jews transferred into a smaller area, among them approximately 50 kids, including Sarkany, were housed in the building's cellar -- of, as Sarkany calls it, the "dungeon."
The conditions were miserable. The cellar had only two windows and one light bulb. The children were continuously told to be quiet and have very little movement. They were given only one meal a day and were watched all the time. They were always cold and hungry. The guards came into the ghetto often and the kids were physically and verbally abused.
Of his experience in the ghetto, Sarkanay says: "You never forget these things."
Recently, Shalom New Haven had the opportunity to speak with Andy Sarkany from his home in Westville about his experience as a member of the Voices of Hope delegation on March of the Living.
SNH: When did you come to the United States?
AS: The Soviets liberated the ghetto in January 17, 1945, and they liberated Hungary by end of February. The conditions under Soviet communism from 1950 on were really very brutal. The revolution started in October 1956 and ended after eight years of fighting on October 21 — my 20th birthday. We had hoped that Soviet communism was overturned, but the Soviets came back and took over the country. By that time there were about 50,000 Hungarians lost in the fighting and over 250,000 of them escaped to Austria.
After the Soviets came back and took over the country again, I told my parents I have no future in our country, and I'm willing to take a risk with my life to escape. So, on November 23, 1956, I said goodbye to my family and, with only an overcoat, I left. It took me four weeks to go from Budapest to Vienna —about 160 miles. I did a lot of walking and finally got to Vienna, where I crossed the Hungarian border into southern Austria. From there I eventually ended up in Vienna and got to the American Embassy. In January 1957, I entered the United States as a Hungarian refugee and sailed on a Marine Corps transfer ship into the United States.
SNH: How did you become connected to Voices of Hope?
AS: I received a scholarship or financial aid from a small Christian College in East Tennessee. I got my degree in mathematics and physics, then received my masters degree in applied mathematics and computer science at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. But I eventually left graduate school [for financial reasons]. Eventually, I worked for IBM for 25 years, until IBM downsized back in the 90s. Thousands of employees were let go, and I was forced to retire because I was already 55.
I decided not to continue my career in science, particularly computer science. Instead, I decided to be part of the Jewish community and Jewish life. I eventually became executive director at a small Jewish Federation. Then, I took a position in the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, an Orthodox Jewish day school, as chief financial officer and director of development. I was there five years.
My wife and I decided that if he wanted to be close to our grown children, we’d better move to the East Coast. So, I saw an ad in the Chronicle of Philanthropy for a fundraiser at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. I lived in Binghampton, New York when I worked at IBM, and there I was very involved as a volunteer with the city’s day school, and with Federation and the JCC. I was raising money for them. So, I felt comfortable in that environment.
I was a full-time employee at the New Haven Federation for about 16 years and then I became a half-time employee. I work from home on the annual campaign.
In Connecticut, I affiliated with a non-profit organization called Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut. Agnes Vertes was president at the time and she still is. I also participated in the Bridgeport JCC’s Adopt A Survivor — a program in which high school juniors and seniors adopt a Holocaust survivor who creates an understanding of what really happened during the Holocaust by discussing the survivor’s individual experience. Shortly after, I was able to bring the program to New Haven.
Eventually, people got to know me at Voices of Hope, which is located in West Hartford, and they reached out to me to support this effort to send Holocaust survivors to give talks in schools. I also affiliated with an organization in White Plains, New York, called Holocaust and Human Rights Resource Education Center. They do sort of the same thing there as Voices of Hope.
So I am involved in these three organizations for Holocaust survivors and whenever they asked me I tried to accommodate the need. Through my affiliations with these organizations, I developed a large network of schools inviting me back. Last year, I gave18 at talks in Connecticut. Also, giving talks on Zoom has allowed me to speak about the Holocaust in places like Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, Texas, New York City, and Seattle.
Last year, I gave about 80 talks in public libraries, churches and, of course, the majority are in public schools to kids ranging in age from fifth-graders to high school seniors.
SNH: How did your participation in March of the Living as part of Voices of Hope delegation come about? What was the experience like?
AS: I was very fortunate that an organization actually sponsored me to join the trip as a Holocaust survivor.
Going to Poland is very, very difficult. Even though I read a lot about it and have seen a lot of pictures. But being on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, getting into the barracks and the various places of those two institutions where the Nazis deported and slaughtered over 1.2 million Jews… It’s a different feeling when you know you are in a barrack where hundreds of Jews were crammed in, in awful conditions and starved to death… knowing that they were taken to the gas chambers and burned to death, taken to the crematoriums. And you see that. It’s very difficult.
At March of the Living, we were about 35 Holocaust survivors who survived some of the camps. It’s horrifying, what Hitler and his cohorts actually did.
SNH: It’s only been recently that March of the Living took adults, let alone Holocaust survivors. Is that correct?
AS: It was originally designed 35 years ago as March of the Hopes, for high school kids. Even this year, there were over 10,000 of us and 90 percent of the marchers were young people. It was delightful to see thousands of young people who are enthusiastic about learning about the Holocaust, and making the commitment that it will never be forgotten or happen again.
Majdanek was especially difficult to see because we were able to see the gas chambers and crematoria about three feet apart.
SNH: Would you go again with groups of young people?
ES: I’d really have to think about it because it’s very difficult. Of course, it is important to have [young people] understand. I was only seven and a half years old when the Nazis occupied Hungary, and the brutality was going on.
But was very fortunate because If the Soviets were moving slower from the east to the west by a couple of weeks, I would not be around. Because the efficiency of the Nazi Fascist government was unbelievable. The whole mechanism they built up in Majdanek, in Treblinka, in Sobibor; in creating the various ghettos in Krakow, in Lodz, in Warsaw, and in all other countries — in Hungary, in Germany; in all the transports that took place — from Holland, Denmark, France, Hungary, even from North Africa. Unbelievable efficiency.
SNH: So you think it's important for kids to go?
AS: Oh yes. And not only kids. I highly recommend it for every Jew who has the opportunity to participate to do so. Because every Jew is a spokesperson to prevent the atrocities that occurred.
To me, when you see the swastika on the armband it means feeling a hate. That’s the only thing that it represents. So, when the Nazis occupied the various countries, that's what it meant — not only the Jews, but all kinds of people who were slaughtered by them: the blacks, the handicapped and various other groups —they were all killed.
There are all kinds of pictures you can see in the various barracks of the concentration camps who are not Jewish and were slaughtered by the Nazis. Treblinka is particularly significant in a sense that Himmler recognized that the Soviets were coming too fast, and he made sure that it was completely destroyed, leveled off. The mass graves were exhumed and burned, making sure there were no memories of what happened there.
It’s very hard to comprehend the efficiency and the brutality of camps like Majdenek. What they did to human beings for no other reason then one person's glorification of himself and his surroundings. It’s humanly unbelievable, isn’t it? It just boggles the mind. It's incomprehensible.
And when you look at the United States, and what happened on August 17, 2017 in Charlottesville, you can see these thugs, these white supremacists…the hate. What particularly shocked me were the slogans they were shouting: because I heard that as a seven-year-old in 1943 and 1944. That the Jews are bloodsuckers. Then, just yesterday morning, I was listening to the news and I heard about some 18-year-old who rented a truck and was trying to get close to the White House. And he had a flag with a swastika on it — in the 21st century! And it had the same slogans I heard when I was a seven years old. Again, the Jews are bloodsuckers.
SNH: So you’re saying that nothing has changed? That we haven’t learned from history?
AS: Yes. And how sad is that? I recently read a quotation from Winston Churchill: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And, this is happening today. Every day in the news, over the last few years, our synagogues are broken into and our people are killed because they are Jews. And our leadership — both in the Senate and the Congress — is full of antisemites.
And we need to stand up for it. And that’s why we need to go on March of the Living and see the reality of what happened in a particular field. It is overwhelming in size. People don't realize how big it was. It's not just a small village or two. The territory is huge. Jews were beaten to death. They forced them to work until they collapsed and then they just shot them. It's very hard not to feel devastated. Just think about it: six million Jews and about six million others. What kind of a brain drain did that produce? What could that have meant for what we would have been able to produce for the future?
I encourage anybody who has the means to participate to come back with the energy and enthusiasm to educate everybody, because knowledge is critical to be able to go forward and never look back. As they say, knowledge is power.
And we need to support our communities. It doesn't matter how young or old you are. You have an obligation. And, the reason I feel comfortable with doing solicitation is because I try to bring Jewish values into everything I do. I try to promote the existence of the Jewish people for the future.
SNH: Finally…how were the final three-day Israel portion of the trip?
AS: Israel is such a beautiful country. It's a great country. And I don't care about politics. I just care about the vibrancy of the country. Jewish people survive forever. And there are three reasons for that.
—Number one: We have a homeland. Many times I said if things get bad, I can pack my suitcase and go there.
—Number two: We have tradition which can live on. We can look back on our ancestors and go forward.
—Number three: Yizkor. We remember. We say four times a year “Yizkor” — we remember.
Those three qualities ensure that the Jews will survive forever.
Religion starts with your heart. If you have a Jewish heart, you are a religious person. The heart will carry us on.