Soul Mate in Years of Horror

Times Staff Writer

Eugene Zinn was about an hour into a PBS Holocaust documentary in January when he heard a familiar voice speaking his native Slovak tongue.

Eighty years old with his eyesight nearly gone, Zinn pressed his face closer to the television screen in his West Hills den.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 6, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Holocaust survivor -- An article in Wednesday’s Section A about Auschwitz survivor Eugene Zinn misspelled the name of the concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, where most of Zinn’s family members were murdered. It is Majdanek, not Madjanek. (An alternate spelling of the camp is Maidanek.) In addition, the article described Zinn as having returned to Palestine after the war. Palestine had become the state of Israel shortly before Zinn arrived.

There, clad in an argyle sweater and walking around the restored Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, was Otto Pressburger, a man for whom Zinn had been searching for much of his life.


Zinn knew he needed to find Pressburger. He knew he wouldn’t rest until he did.


For decades, Zinn didn’t speak about the horror of the Holocaust. His three years in the death camp seemed so distant. So at odds with a happy and fruitful half-century in Los Angeles. The 45-year marriage. The fulfilling career designing wheelchairs. The two “extraordinarily wonderful” children he had raised, sent to college and on to successful careers. The perennial kvetching about the Dodgers.

The nightmares, however, never let up. He would conjure up images of his mother, Helen, then 46, and his father, Heinrich, 58, lined up outside the gas chamber with his little sisters Maedy, 13, and Erika, 12. Screaming for help once inside. Finally passing out. No one to help them.

“There’s no way you can block it out,” Zinn says.

Zinn knew of no one in L.A. who could relate. Even he couldn’t quite fathom the enormity of it. “Sometimes I’d think, did it really happen to me?” If people inquired about the striking blue “30113” tattooed across three inches of his outer left forearm, he would reply, “I was at Auschwitz.” Few pressed further.

Zinn says he didn’t want to trouble his children with the evils he had endured. Instead, he did his best to try to enjoy life. He took his kids to baseball games. He sent flowers to his wife, Sarah, each Valentine’s Day. He flew the family to Europe or the Caribbean on annual vacations. “And thank God, we had beautiful times,” Zinn says. “I wanted to raise my children to be happy.”

Son Harry, now 44, recalls reading “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s famous Holocaust account, in junior high school and realizing for the first time what his father must have endured.

But it would be like asking someone whether he had cancer, the younger Zinn recalls. “You don’t want to know it’s true, and if it is, you don’t want to bring it up.”



That Zinn -- or anyone -- could survive Auschwitz for three years is remarkable in itself. Wiesel spent less than a year there and in other camps. Most of the more than 1 million prisoners brought to the camp from 1940 to 1945 died or were executed within weeks of arrival.

Zinn’s train arrived in April 1942, packed with 973 Slovakian Jews, including his four teenage male cousins. All but 88 were dead within 17 weeks. Zinn guesses maybe five of his trainload made it to the war’s end.

Within three weeks, the first of his family members perished. His cousin, Zoltan, wracked by beatings and chronic diarrhea, died in Zinn’s arms in the wooden, straw-strewn bunk they shared with three others. Within three months, the other three died, too.

“Every evening prayer, I would ask God to take my soul,” Zinn recalls, so the Nazis “wouldn’t have the satisfaction of killing me.”

He worried about his parents and siblings. The last time he had seen them was at Passover, April 2, 1942, in their home in Huncovce, Czechoslovakia. As German soldiers rounded up the cousins, Zinn said his last words to his mother: “Don’t cry, Mother. I’m not afraid of work. They won’t kill me.”

A few months after that last Seder together, Zinn saw the son of the cantor of his synagogue, who had just been transferred to Auschwitz from the Madjanek death camp, where most of the 100 other Jews in Huncovce had been taken. He relayed the devastating news: Zinn’s parents and two sisters had been sent directly to the gas chamber at Madjanek. His elder brother, Alexander, 20, was brutally beaten not long after, and when he fell, SS guards stomped on a broomstick across his neck to finish the job.


The cantor’s son told Zinn that his father had been singing on the train as they left home, thinking he would soon see his younger son, Gene, again.

Zinn had no one. Except for prisoner number 29045.

Also 17 and from Slovakia, Otto Pressburger had arrived three days before Zinn. Pressburger’s parents and three brothers all perished within six weeks of arriving at Auschwitz. “From then on, it was just me,” Pressburger recalled in a telephone interview. “Just me and Zinn.”

Pressburger, strong and solid though just 5 foot 6, initially dug the ditches into which the dead bodies were dumped, then dug them up again when the camp filled with the unbearable stench of rotting flesh.

The Nazis had a solution. They sent Zinn, Pressburger and hundreds of other prisoners to masonry classes in the mornings. The rest of the day, they worked shoulder-to-shoulder laying bricks and mortar for four large buildings. These would become crematoriums at Birkenau, the camp next to Auschwitz. At 5 foot 3, Zinn was far from the strongest of his family. Nor, in his view, was he the smartest. He doesn’t think there was a greater reason he was spared, his faith in God so shattered by the atrocities.

“What I keep asking myself,” he says, “is how come I’m the only one who survived?”


Zinn dodged direct death sentences several times.

In one of the regular “selections” designed to weed out “useless eaters,” an officer pointed him to the fatal line. Zinn ran. When soldiers caught up with him 10 minutes later, he was given a reprieve. Anyone able to run for that long, the officer said, could still work.

Once, he heard guards discussing how they had picked 81 prisoners for the gas chamber, when they intended to pick only 80. Zinn knew German. He shouted out that he would relinquish his place.


Some choice assignments helped the pair evade death. Early on, Zinn and Pressburger sifted through confiscated belongings for gold and valuables, sometimes finding a salami in a coat pocket. An assignment expanding the chicken coops provided an occasional stolen egg downed raw and warmth from fires that served as incubators.

The final job was the luckiest. In 1944, they were assigned to the stables, where they could wash their bodies and uniforms in the horses’ bathwater. Better grooming helped them survive the gas chamber selections.

On Sundays, when work was lighter, they picked lice off their uniforms. “We were killing lice and fleas just like our captors were killing us,” Zinn says. They and a dozen other Eastern European prisoners would talk about home and their mothers’ cooking, and sing the “Auschwitz Song.” Its sprightly melody belies its seven grisly verses, all in German, with lines such as,

“And should I never see my homeland

And like many thousand others through the chimney go ...

I greet you my dear ones wherever you are

Remember me sometimes because I had to leave you.”

As the Russian army approached in January 1945, the Nazis forced the prisoners to march west. Zinn and Pressburger drove horse-drawn wagons and pilfered from the clothes and supplies they had loaded for the officers. The rest had to walk through the snow. Between the freezing weather and the SS guards’ bullets, 15,000 of the 60,000 prisoners died.

When American tanks drew close from the west, the SS herded the prisoners into boxcars again. At one village, all Jews were told to get out. The stable-masters stayed put. The 80 Jews who got off were shot on the spot.

Pressburger jumped off the train about 90 minutes before it reached Prague. “That was the last time I saw Zinn,” Pressburger recalls. “I had no idea he lived through it.”


Zinn jumped an hour later.

As the war ended, Zinn followed his mother’s last instructions to the family: Return home, no matter what.

When he arrived in Huncovce, he found no trace of his family’s existence. Their home was occupied by a family he didn’t know. The yeshiva, or Jewish school, had been desecrated. His grandparents’ gravestones had been shattered.

His parents’ 15 siblings who lived in the village, their spouses and their families had all been killed.

A neighbor handed him a thin gold band. His mother had asked that her wedding ring be given to the first Zinn to return home.

For more than 40 years, Zinn kept the ring in his wallet, wanting to hold close the only tangible connection he had to his past.

He carried the ring during his two years in the Czech army and when he moved to Palestine.

He carried the ring to the U.S. in 1955, first to Pittsburgh to stay with an uncle who had immigrated before the war, and eventually to L.A. He kept the ring with him while he worked as a cabinetmaker, while he went to night school at L.A. City College, and for the 34 years he worked his way up from junior draftsman to manager at Everest and Jennings, where the “EZ” wheelchair line adopted his initials.


“I didn’t want to put it away someplace,” Zinn says.

And then, while shopping at the Farmers Market seven years ago, a pickpocket stole his wallet.


Zinn can’t pinpoint when or why he began uncovering his past. Perhaps, he said, he realized how distant the slaughter was becoming. Perhaps he recognized that he was getting old and that memory, however persistent, is impermanent.

In 1992, Zinn took his family back to his birthplace.

In one sense, Huncovce -- now part of Slovakia -- hadn’t changed much. The mountains were still as stunning, and a 15-minute stroll still went from one end of town to the other.

His house still had a functioning outhouse and a water pump still wrapped in straw against the freeze.

He knocked on the door at the gate. An old woman answered, showed them around, then asked, “Do you want to buy the house?”

“How can I buy it, when I never sold it?” Zinn replied.

The Zinns hired a taxi to drive the few hours to Auschwitz.

Son Harry captured the trip on video. As the family walks around the camp that now seems more like a college campus, with its red brick buildings and manicured lawns, Zinn tells what happened to him.


“On this spot, I was standing naked with a whole block of prisoners,” he says. “I was selected and waiting for the gas chamber. The row here was the last row. But the truck taking the prisoners was full.”

While awaiting the next truck, he explains, the SS man said, “How old are you? Seventeen? You want to work? OK. Then you can work.”

Looking healthy and wily in his late 60s, he drags on Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

“And here, in the mornings, we used to get up and there would be shootings....”

And here is Block 27, “where you were brought when you were sick. Depending on who saw you, they would either give you aspirin or a shot. If you got a shot, in five seconds you were dead.

“From Block 11, the hangman came. Once they brought six mothers, whose sons had escaped. They hanged them for two days, with a sign around them that said, ‘My son tried to escape, and now I’m in prison.’ ”

Over and over in the video, the words “right here” and “right here in this spot” fall like gavels. But in a sense, it is as if Zinn is directing his final argument at himself.

Birds chirp on that bright June day, and the trees look lush. Zinn gestures toward the green fields that have replaced ankle-deep mud and declares: “Every inch of it is fertilized with Jewish blood.”


On the video, he asks the clerk to pull his file. He shows her the number on his arm. Back comes a card with his dates of birth, camp entry and departure.

Then he asks the clerk for the record of Allegra Haim. She was 18 when she was rounded up in Athens in the fall of 1943, after she left her family’s hiding place to buy some food. They never saw her again.

Zinn learned from the records that Allegra had survived until Russian troops liberated the camp. A week later, in a Red Cross hospital at the site, Allegra Haim, the sister of the woman Zinn met at L.A. City College and who became his wife, died. She had never left the camp.


A few years after the trip, Zinn was interviewed at length -- at son Harry’s urging -- by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Created by Steven Spielberg after hearing recollections of survivors he met in Poland while filming “Schindler’s List,” it has videotaped the recollections of 52,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide.

The interview triggered Zinn to begin searching for his Auschwitz buddies. Two years ago, he went to the 10th anniversary of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, where survivors were grouped by country. Would Pressburger be there? No, and worse, he could find no one he knew.

Time was running out, with so few of the estimated 250,000 prisoners liberated from the camps still alive.


He had all but given up hope when he saw Pressburger on his television screen. Excited, Zinn dialed Harry and daughter, Helene, 38, and asked them to track Pressburger down. They contacted KCET in L.A., the public television station that co-produced with BBC the six-hour documentary, “Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State.”

The station passed along Zinn’s contacts to Pressburger and his family, telling the Zinns that it would be up to Pressburger whether he wanted to contact them.

A week later, Pressburger called from his home in Herzlia, Israel. Zinn recalls those first words in Slovak that sliced through his soul: How come I don’t remember you?

Zinn said his name, using the European pronunciation.

“Oh my god, ‘tzeen,’ of course I know you,” Pressburger said. They hastily caught up on where they had gone after leaping from the train. Pressburger, now 81, told how he had been badly bruised and was nursed back to health by a Czech family.

Eventually, he went to Palestine, fought in the military and founded a printing business. He married a Romanian immigrant in Israel, Busia, whose family had been in hiding in a Jewish ghetto during the war in what is now Ukraine. They have two sons, one in New Jersey, and five grandchildren.

Pressburger says he survived so he could tell the world what he had witnessed. He lectures about it twice a week to schoolchildren and talks often at home about it. “Even our youngest granddaughter knows all our Holocaust stories and experiences,” he says.


Zinn and Pressburger’s lives could have intersected many times after Auschwitz. Zinn had gone to Palestine shortly after the war and fought in the military, too. Both had visited Auschwitz with their families in the early 1990s. Pressburger had toured L.A. on a vacation, and Zinn had taken his family to visit Israel in 1984. Pressburger also had been interviewed for Spielberg’s Visual History project.

And then they went back to what they shared. “After that, all we spoke about was Auschwitz,” Pressburger says. “Memories, experiences.... Our history. Auschwitz is our history.”

Zinn ticked off names of the other dozen friends they had worked with in the stables. What had become of Joseph, “YoJo” Weiss? And Washavaski, whose testicles had been cut off? And what about Erwin Gutman? And Karmen Haupt, whom Zinn had jumped from the train with and who he knew had gone to Canada? And the guy from Lodz, Poland, they called “Lodgznik?”

Pressburger said he had kept in regular touch with three of the stable-masters who had immigrated to Israel. Weiss had died just two years ago. He and Pressburger had remained the closest of friends.

Burying that lifelong friend from Auschwitz was so painful that he became physically ill, he says, which his doctor attributed to emotional distress.

The old friends talked for about an hour, but communication grew difficult. Zinn’s Slovak is rusty and his Hebrew even worse. He tends to mix in Slavic-accented words in English, which Pressburger doesn’t speak.


Zinn said he told Pressburger: “Otto, please write me a long letter.” They said goodbye.

But Zinn could not wait for a letter. In early March, a few weeks after that first conversation, he called Pressburger.

Zinn told Pressburger: “Otto, I have to see you.”

“I would love to, but I’m too old to travel,” Pressburger said. And Zinn had second thoughts about leaving Sarah, whose memory is failing.


Zinn spends much of his time these days tending his two Meyer lemon trees and his calla lilies. His wristwatch chirps out the time because macular degeneration has been hindering his vision. He can no longer drive.

He clings to his family. He spent only two nights away from his children while they were growing up, and although they live nearby, he still insists they phone when they arrive safely home after visits.

He can’t recall ever crying since he left Auschwitz.

On a recent visit, Zinn insisted a reporter tell him all the details Pressburger had recalled in the telephone interview, and as they are read, he dabs at his eyes.

He searches for words to convey how much reconnecting with Pressburger has meant.

“In the context of my whole life, I couldn’t figure out all those years,” he said. “I didn’t meet one person who was with me in Auschwitz, or who I knew before Auschwitz. And suddenly, I saw someone I knew for three years, who escaped one hour before me.... Otto Pressburger gave me a feeling that it actually was like that ... that it’s not just a dream.”


Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report. The writer can be reached at