Gabi Held

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gabi held          

Growing Up Jewish in Hungary

Gabi Held was born in Encs on September 9, 1931 to the local grocers Abraham and Yolanda Held. The family grocery store also functioned as a creamery and a liquor store. As a child, he worked alongside his father in the creamery and his mother in the grocery store. Growing up Gabi remembers playing a lot of soccer with his two brothers. His father would have to sleep with the ball under his pillow so the children wouldn’t play into the night. Early on in his childhood the family moved to Szolnock so the children could receive a formal Jewish education. Gabi can only recall few and mild instances of anti-Semitism as a child.

“When did things start to change?”

“I already felt anti-Semitism in school and there was a new law that passed that if you were a Jew, you were ordered to wear a yellow Jewish star. We had curfews. We couldn’t go out or else they would lock us in jail.”


 Hungary During the Holocaust

In 1944, Gabi’s father was taken from their home without any notice and sent to a labor camp. A few months later, Nazi soldiers paid another visit to the family’s home in Szolnok. This time, their house was seized and Yolanda and the children were given five minutes to pack their belongings and join the other Jews from the neighborhood on a march to a nearby brick factory, which was now meant to function as a ghetto.

They remained locked in this crowded factory with no food, water, or sleeping accommodations as well as no idea what was to become of them. Gabi describes the ghetto as a “warehouse of hungry, tired Jews” selling rings for pieces of bread and committing suicide daily.

“Hardly any space to move. We were in a very small room. It was inside a big factory room with elders, children and women. They were all laying down thinking how will we all survive here? We were hoping it was the end of the war.”  

“Old people that had beards when we arrived to the ghettos were getting their beards cut because they were religious Jews. They just wanted to show that they are in power and in control while cutting the beards… And losing the beard was like losing fate. There was no way to escape.”

After one or two weeks all the inhabitants were transported by train to Theresienstadt to work on a farm. The Held family considered themselves lucky to be working and not imprisoned in one of the camps. While on the farm they were able to walk freely, speak to Jews of neighboring farms and were given food and water.

“There was some kind of train that they were loading up- I remember they came with empty trains and we had to go inside the train. My mother and brother were worried what was going to happen to us. My mother always told us just go inside do not go outside that is trouble. We were more safer inside than outside.”


After about three months of tilling the field, Held and his family were transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he remained until its liberation in 1945. The first thing he remembers upon arriving was the chimney smoke. He thought nothing of them and still did not realize their utility when one of the men told him “here’s where you come in, and there’s where you go out.” While in the camp, Held was stripped of his humanity. None of the Jews were referred to by name but were instead given numbers. In the early, freezing mornings they stood in line for hours getting ready for “the count” of the inhabitants. Gabi describes the living conditions of Bergen-Belsen to be “unbearable.” The health of the inhabitants were increasingly deteriorating. Not long after arrival, did Gabi’s mother extract Typhus. She might have died if it wasn’t for Gabi’s clever and courageous actions. When Gabi saw his mother near death, he snuck into the kitchen and stole a jar of fat to feed his mother. Everyday Gabi poured the jars contents into the mouth of her unconscious body until it was empty and was able to nurse her back to life. He did not want to see his mother “among the layers of dead people piled in the courtyard.” As you can see, Hungarian Jews were provided with little food. Gabi had to resort to eating the coffee grinds left behind on the hall floors. He was however, fortunate enough to have received a half of a loaf of bread on his Bar Mitzvah, of which he shared with his family. 








 “All the children from the village who took a shower in the baracks in the gas chamber have died.”

concentration camp hungary


“There was some kind of train that they were loading up- I remember they came with empty trains and we had to go inside the train. My mother and brother were worried what was going to happen to us. My mother always told us just go inside do not go outside that is trouble. We were more safer inside than outside.”

“How are we going to eat? It was just a matter of survival. The train trip was 1 or 2 days. Once they stopped and gave us water because it was the summer time but no food.”



When you were in camp what other nationalities were there?

“It was mainly Hungarian, some Polish and German. There was some gypsies and criminals too in the concentration camp- we were all mixed togeather. They told us we were to take a shower, we marched, they shoved us into a big room with an iron gate and we were waiting women and children.. Looked up no shower heads just little holes in the wall and little windows on the side. Then, I saw the Germans looking and I couldn’t understand why. After a while, we figured out it was a gas chamber. We were out. We went back to the baracks and my clothes weren’t there. Two weeks ago, they took only the children to take the shower…”

On April 15, a few months after Gabi’s Bar Mitzvah, the entire camp was transported by train to an unknown location. At the train station Gabi could see the camp being bombed by who he thought were American soldiers but who were in fact British liberators. When the train stopped one of the S.S. soldiers threatened to kill all of the Jews unless they gave up their clothes for the soldiers to guise themselves with to fool the liberators. Of course they agreed and those particular SS were able to escape. The liberators took the train back to Bergen-Belsen, where Jews were given food and medical treatment while being systematically evacuated. 

 After the War in Hungary, Israel and America

After the war, Gabi moved back to Hungary where he reunited with his father. It turns out his father was sent to a labor camp in Germany where he was made into a Sommerkomando, who carried dead bodies and removed rubbish from bomb sites. The war turned Held into what he calls a “bitter man,” filled with mounted anger, which he was able to use to his advantage by becoming a Hungarian and Isreali boxing champion. In 1960, he immigrated to the U.S. where he met his wife Mariann and started a family whom now live in Great Kills of Staten Island, New York.





Freidlander, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945. Abridged by Orna Kenan. New York. Harper Collins Publisher, 2009.

Held, Gabi. Interview 122. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation. Staten Island: 1997. Web. 28 Dec. 1997.

Kolb, Eberhard. Bergen-Belsen: From Detention Camp to Concentration Camp, 1943-1945. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985.