Jasina (Yasinia) is easy to overlook: a small urban settlement nestled in the foothills of the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. Today the town is in the southwest corner of the Ukraine. Over the past 100 years it has changed hands numerous times as the political boundaries shifted from Russian Empire to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany to be “given” to the Soviet Union in 1945 before its present return to its Ukrainian [possession.] Contemporary pictures show that little has changed in its composition: wood huts, unpaved roads and blue-green pastures shadowed by the grey peaks overlooking the valley. Lou Dunst grew up in a place that held no more than 7000 people by 1941; the Jewish population, living mostly in the center of town, was a scarce 20% of that, existing in a hostile environment that had also changed little from its Pale of Settlement days under the tsars.
The Dunst family was tight-knit, loving and pious. The father owned and operated a general merchandise store which carried items ranging from farm products and food to clothing and candy, while the family occupied the rooms at the back of the store. Lou remembers his family fondly, describing their solidarity amidst the hostility of their neighbors: “Don’t ever give up the unity of the family.” His father, a World War I veteran of the Austro-Hungarian Army who was a POW in Russia, was a licensed shopkeeper as well as a trained electrician and bookbinder. He was also a mainstay at the small local synagogue, helping in its upkeep, providing kindling for the stove. His store, in observant Jewish tradition, closed on Friday afternoon and didn’t reopen until Saturday night. The family was “shomer Shabbos” (guardian of the Sabbath) with Lou’s most endearing memories being of his mother’s warm challah, his father’s blessings and the family enjoying each other’s company on this cherished day of rest.
Lou and his elder brother Irving attended public school until the Nuremberg Laws of 1935-6 prohibited Jews from higher education. They also went to their local cheyder (Heb. for “room”) for religious instruction. Zayde Schenk would be a memorable teacher to Lou, who calls him a “living computer.” Later they would be forced to go to trade schools; Irving profiting more from the machinist shop than Lou. However, due to the exigencies of an unstable world at war, Lou was granted his bar mitvah before he turned 13 in 1939.
Their lives were always in danger, as Lou relates in his book. Even in out-of-the-way Jasina, Jews were marginalized, harassed and harmed, never completely accepted into the mainstream of local life. The advent of nazi absorption of Central Europe would impact the Dunsts in typical ways: loss of civil rights, local police harassment, abrupt seizure of property and people. When “Hitler found us” in 1941, it came as no surprise that the Dunst family would suffer the fate of Jews have experienced in the region for the past centuries. Marcus/Mordecai, their father, would be impressed as a human minesweeper before returning to a bewildered family. Soon thereafter, the whole clan would be swept up in the maelstrom of dispossession, displacement and genocide.
Lou's Holocaust Journey (Dates TBD)
When “Hitler found us” in 1941, it came as no surprise that the Dunst family would suffer the fate of Jews have experienced in the region for the past centuries. Soon thereafter, the whole clan would be swept up in the maelstrom of dispossession, displacement and genocide.
Having survived the notorious selection process, in which he saw his mother for the last time, Lou was assigned to various tasks, evidently avoiding the dreaded Sonderkommando assignment of many of the prisoners. His father disappears here in Auschwitz while his brother Irving’s reassuring hand is always on Lou’s shoulder. At some point Lou and Irving are herded towards the gas chambers; but, the canister of Zyklon-B won’t dispense its lethal contents due to an unexplainedmalfunction. Soon Lou and Irving are hurriedly shipped out to Mauthausen as the war begins its fatal collapse around Germany and its frantic attempt to solve the “Jewish Question.”
B) Mateszalka, Hungary - approv 141 miles from Jasina
C) Aushwitz - Birkenau, Poland : Approx 341 miles from Mateszalka
D) Mauthausen - Gusen, Austria - approx 321 miles from Aushwitz
E) Ebensee, Austria - approx 66 miles from Mauthausen
At least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around 90 percent of them Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at Auschwitz.Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities. Living conditions were brutal, and many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.dd paragraph to your block, write your own text and edit me.
Another boxcar ride takes Lou and Irving Dunst, where they would have another brush with the gas chambers. Both brothers stood side-by-side whenthey were selected for work groups in the thousands and awarded stamped numbered bracelets made from recycled Zyklon-B canisters. Lou’s was #68122; Irving, right behind him as always, wore #68123. Having weakened prisoners carry 100 pound blocks of stone up 186 narrow steps of the Wiener Graben was one form of macabre entertainment for the SS. Often the blocks would fall or the prisoner would stumble and suffer broken, crushed limbs or death. Lou also would recall guards taking rifle target practice at the straining climbers or they would be summarily machine gunned down by the SS with sinister hilarity. He not only saw it, he feared it even as he struggled to lug the stones, blocks and iron pieces thrust upon him.
This was to be their final stop, a work-to-death camp specifically established to harness slave labor for the German aeronautics industry. Ebensee was one ofa complex of 40 sub-camps that supported the death factory of Mauthausen. It is probably at Ebensee that Lou and Irving spent the most time in one place on their journey through hell as the nazi extermination machine was gradually breaking down. While conditions were just as horrific as those in Auschwitz, the brothers managed to keep in touch every few weeks (with Irving slipping Lou an occasional dry chunk of bread through the barbed wire fence) and stay alive (though, for Lou, just barely) to be liberated by the US Army on May 6, 1945.
Liberation (May 6, 1945)
“Let me live, God, so I can tell the story.” Lou Dunst, 1945In May of 1945 the world was just waking up from a heinous nightmare perpetrated by men against their brothers. In the craggy mountains of Austria, fresh-faced young men hardened by war would encounter the unimaginable horrors of what happened behind the battle lines. And atop a pile of emaciated and fly-invested corpses lay the crumpled body of a youth who never lost his faith. His elder brother would have American GIs recover that wasted body so that he could tell his story…and keep his promise to God.
General George Patton’s 3rd Army had steamrolled behind a collapsing Western Front as Nazi Germany was fast losing footing in Europe. Panicked troops fled east to a devastated landscape of bombed-out cities and ravaged countryside. There were exceptions: much of Austria did not suffer the deprivations of war physically, although there were certainly shortages and decimated the population as more people were called to arms. Patton’s armored divisions mowed through southern Germany and the dense forests of upper Austria seeing little of the heavy toll of war suffered elsewhere. When the tanks of the 3rd Calvary rolled through the mountain market town of Ebensee, the GIs saw a bucolic scene out of a tourist guide book with healthy farmers and their families going about their day in quiet insouciance. Up the road near the lake and among the limestone caverns was a nightmare.
May 6, 1945 proved to be sunny and welcoming. The scene up the road was not. Chasing fragments of the once mighty Wehrmacht was all in a day’s work for the GIs. The bucolic mountain town untouched by war before it moved to the sterilized chronicle of a camp that was designed to kill. There was such an unbelievable disconnect between life in upper Austria among the natives and the death camp down the road. Nobody in Patton's blood-tested troops could possibly understand the depths of depravity people could take on others. Their encounter of the horror and the attempt to describe what an intelligent nation could inflict upon others is beyond comprehension.
Born to a farming family in Iowa, Bob Persinger could never prepare for the kind of war he was to encounter riding in a tank with the Army’s 3rd Calvary in Europe. The attack on Pearl Harbor was only seven months after his high school graduation; he would be drafted in early 1943 at age 19. As the sole breadwinner for his mother and four younger siblings, he could have deferred. Instead he felt compelled to contribute his energies to the war effort: “We were all so patriotic”—his two brothers would follow. After a year’s training in Georgia, he shipped out with Gen Patton’s 3rd Army in the European Theatre in 1944.
His experiences included the drive up France, the infamous Battle of the Bulge, and the dash across Germany with the roaring successes of Patton’s surge to end nazi domination. His unit’s arrival in northern Austria would, however, change his life.
Many of the GIs could not conceive the idea that a cultured, civilized country could enslave and mistreat such immense numbers of people as ruthlessly systematic as the Hitler regime had done. Villagers in the area told the men of “work camps” but never elaborated more. Nothing could prepare them for the incomparable horror of these camps populated by barely living skeletons and piles of bodies as they made their way into the heart of Nazi Germany. Platoon Sergeant Persinger was driving a tank with the 3rd Cav Recon Squadron picking off nazi stragglers when his group ran over the barbed wire fence of Ebensee on 6 May 1945. A noxious smell of decay had assaulted them hundreds of yards away. The camp was manned by a handful of frightened guards who gave up easily--the camp commandant and most of the German troops had fled the day before. Persinger, in a moment of passion, grabbed the rifle from one soldier, cracked it over the gun turret of his tank “Lady Luck” and hung its shattered remains on a lamppost. The roar that arose from the inmates of the abandoned work-to-death facility was alarming: the corpses littering the ankle-deep muddy grounds waved feeble arms and lifted quavering voices to celebrate their liberators. His own troops, hardened veterans of fantastic bloodletting throughout Europe were appalled by the sight: “Our boys were sick and vomiting” as they took in the prisoners and their world, including the stacks of almost 400 bodies awaiting disposal at the camp’s crematorium.
Persinger recalls with sadness, “I’d seen death before, but nothing like that. I remember thinking: if everybody could see this, there wouldn’t be nothing like wars anymore. To treat human beings like that…I couldn’t have imagined.”One of those walking skeletons led a soldier of Persinger’s unit to one of the piles of former human beings to point out his brother. “Please save him.” Irving Dunst had just redeemed his brother Lou from death. Lou would live to thank this astonished GI sergeant 61 years later. Bob Persinger, 90, now lives in Rockford, IL.
Life after the war
Once liberated from almost certain death at Ebensee, Lou and his brother Irving became faces lost in a crowd of countless millions of displaced and lost people wandering throughout war-weary Europe. The armies of the victors and the nascent UN agencies could hardly cope with the flood of the dispossessed while they endeavored to bring back some semblance of order. Like many from Central and Eastern Europe, people found their homes destroyed or occupied by strangers. Returning to their Carpathian Mountain town of Jasinia in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia held no promise for the orphaned brothers either as most of its Jewish population had not survived the war or the camps. Nor were they welcome: while the nazis had been defeated, anti-Semitism remained in many of these areas and showed its ugly face in local pogroms to greet the returnees.
Neither was Lou in any shape to begin rebuilding his life after being plucked from death’s open door on May 1945. He was weakened by disease and tired from aimless travel, his feet were frostbitten and he suffered bouts of typhus. Both of them were hungry, broke and stateless. Irving proposed they make for Bratislava where he had once attended yeshiva and try to locate relatives there. They got as far as Prague where they collapsed into the brief respite afforded them by the Podoli Sanitarium, itself a victim of the war and a pale shadow of its former renowned state. There the brothers plotted out their future.
Still weak from his ordeal, Lou stayed behind while Irving searched for familiar faces in Bratislava. In the house of some distant relatives he came across a common miracle in post-nazi Europe: he found their sister Risi, who had survived, married and was starting a family. Nevertheless, the darkness of what she had seen and experienced never left her.
The brothers each chose divergent paths: Irving would try to join a Zionist group and immigrate to Palestine, defying the British blockade which frustrated many displaced Jews from going to the Promised Land. Lou was battling typhoid fever and had another serious attack which landed him in a Catholic hospital. The Sisters of Mercy nursed the thin 20-year-old camp survivor with gentle care and an occasional shot of cognac;”…they didn’t have any medications, they gave us their hearts.” Staying in Europe to recover while his brother made for Palestine, Lou promised to reunite with him there later. Meanwhile, life had other plans.
Another train ride, another destination: this time Rome. Lou arrived penniless and alone at the “postwar railway station” behind the Arch of Constantine to strike out a new path for himself among the countless refugees in the Eternal City. There he would stay for almost a year and a half eking out a modest living and regaining his health. He struggled among the stateless Jews of many nationalities, sleeping in hallways and cramped rooms, taking on any job that would pay no matter how humble. His brother Irving, with whom he stayed in contact, had been detained in Cyprus and watched from behind barbed wire as the UN debated the new state of Israel into existence, November 1947. Both brothers would endeavor to find his own unique niche in the new world order: Irving as a machinist in various Israeli industries, Lou as a budding businessman in Rome.
“There was a change of plans…a switch—there were always switches,” Lou recalls the uncertainties of those years. His restless brother-in-law had come to Italy from Israel in 1949 with plans of striking out for Canada—another unknown. Again, family loyalties and support impelled Lou to change tack and join him in this new venture. The two men would land in Toronto; but David Adler, Risi’s husband could not find peace and moved to the US. Without a proper passport, Lou was unable to join them. To settle that awkward issue with the Canadian authorities “I stood and declared, ‘I hereby formally renounce my citizenship in my former country.’”
Switches again: Lou turns up in New York, looking for an aunt, his late mother’s sister and is soon working his way down to Florida where she is visiting her son. In Florida, he meets his cousin “Yehuda” –Joseph—and finds work with him. He also brushes with death again in a near-fatal car accident. Joseph wants to expand into California—then virgin territory for many burgeoning entrepreneurs—and Lou catches the bug. A cross-country car trip to Los Angeles creates more adventures and new friends. By now the expansive and energetic 50’s are in full swing, Lou arrives at a bustling city overflowing with enthusiasm and people eager to make quick cash. Again, he housed with his brother-in-law while he tried to find his feet as a salesman. “I was tired of knocking on those doors in Los Angeles.” Without sufficient connections or references, he could not find work and was directed by another friend to try his luck in San Diego. Finally, Lou Dunst will find his home.
Just as life had many switches for Lou, so did it provide him with many supporting branches. Each person in his life connected with another and his tree of family and friends grew and flourished. The man he rode across America with helped him to get established in his new home in Southern California. The brother-in-law resurfaces time and time again to aid Lou in his amazing journey. And always, there is Irving: the man who kept his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder throughout their trials, even when they were apart geographically.
He eventually met and married Estelle Addleson, who would inspire the next chapter in Lou’s life: that of teacher of the horrors of the Holocaust and inspirational speaker for the redemptive virtues of love.
Spreading the Message
Despite uncalculable odds, Lou emerged with a clear conscious and message for everyone.....“We have to clean our own hearts …and learn to live like brothers and sisters BECAUSE WE ARE BROTHERS AND SISTERS, no matter where we come from or where we are going. We are God’s children.” Perhaps another of Lou's mantra between family and friends is " Hazak ve'Ematz" which means strength and courage. Both of these messages were spoken to people of all ages, careers, positions, and most importantly anyone who wanted to listen and learn. From Regional Judges to Nay Seals to children in elementary schools, Lou made it a priority to tell everyone his story so that it never happen again.