Peter Kubicek was born in Trenčín in northwestern Slovakia in 1930. His father, Andrej, owned a drugstore in town and his mother, Ilka, who was from the Sudeten part of Moravia, often worked there. Peter attended a Jewish school in Trenčín; he says that only a handful of his middle-school classmates survived WWII. In August 1939, Peter’s father traveled to Geneva for the World Zionist Congress. As a result, he was not in Slovakia when WWII officially broke out. He made his way to France and Portugal and, in March 1941, to New York. His attempts to obtain visas for his family were unsuccessful and, by December 1941, travel to the United States was impossible. Peter, his mother and his grandmother were deported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in October 1944.
Peter was separated from his family and transferred to six different camps before ending up in Sachsenhausen in the spring of 1945. With the Soviet Army approaching, the Germans liquidated Sachsenhausen and started the prisoners on a forced march. Peter says that he and his compatriots were given food packets by the Red Cross which kept them alive during the 12-day march. On May 2, his group was liberated, and they made their way to Schwerin (in northern Germany) where American troops had taken over the city. With the help of an American soldier, Peter made contact with his father who, in New York City, had not heard from his family for several years.
Although Peter’s grandmother died in Bergen-Belsen, he found his mother on the streets of Prague shortly after liberation. Peter had contracted tuberculosis while in the concentration camps and spent one year in a sanatorium. In November 1946, he and his mother moved to New York City and were reunited with his father. Peter studied European history at Queens College and attended graduate school in Lausanne. He joined the import/export business that his father had started and, when his father died in 1963, took over the company. Peter and his wife Edith (a Czech émigré who was born in Prague) have two daughters and three grandchildren. After retiring in 2001, Peter became a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2012, he published his memoirs, titledMemories of Evil: A World War II Childhood. Today Peter lives in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens with his wife.
“In 1940, they started to promulgate a series of anti-Semitic laws whereby businesses were expropriated. First they started in a small way; for instance, Jews were not allowed to own luxury goods. My father already had a car, which was unusual in those days, so no car. No furs. My mother had to give up jewelry, and there was no sports equipment. So I, at the age of ten or eleven, had to give up my skis, my ice skates, my sled and my most prized possession of all, which was my red bicycle. I loved the red bicycle and I had to give that up. My mother told the story that I once came home crying because I saw a boy riding my bicycle.”
“My father was a great Zionist and in August 1939 he was a delegate from Slovakia to the World Zionist Congress, which took place in Geneva. He was there when the War started and wanted to rush home, and everybody said ‘Hey, hey, don’t do that. You can help your family better by staying out here and trying to get them out.’ Well, that was easier said than done. He was in Geneva; after his visa expired the Swiss kicked him out and he moved to Paris, and when, in 1940, the German troops overran Paris, he moved down south in France, ultimately to Portugal, and in Portugal he applied for a visa to the United States. It took quite awhile. So he left Trenčín in August 1939 and in March 1941 he arrived in New York. So he immediately applied for visas for myself, my mother and my grandmother – my mother’s mother – who lived with us at the time, but that was a rather complex procedure which took a lot of time. So this was in 1941 and then in December 1941 you had Pearl Harbor, and that was the end of all civilian travel across the Atlantic and we were trapped there.”
“Sachsenhausen was liquidated and we were forced on what was called the Sachsenhausen hunger march, which started – this, of course, I got from my later research – started on April 20. They announced that the camp is going to be blown up and whoever remains will die in the camp. The camp at that time contained I think about [35,000 prisoners], and about [32,000 of us] started on this hunger march and about 3,000 stayed.* In the event, two days later the Soviet troops liberated Sachsenhausen and all these prisoners who were too sick and feeble to walk were actually liberated at that point.
“We marched for what turned out to be 12 days in a northerly direction. The food that we received were packages of the International Red Cross, which kept us alive. That was totally amazing. The International Red Cross, which was run by Count Folke Bernadotte from Sweden, had these Red Cross trucks – they were white with huge red crosses painted on the sides and painted on the top. They approached the German lines and they more or less talked their way across German lines and they said ‘We are here just on a humanitarian mission’ and somehow they got permission to cross, and the second day after we left we were stopped by these Red Cross trucks and given food packages. For the next 12 days this happened several times and we basically survived on the food packages given to us by the International Red Cross.”
Peter adds that “during the march, whoever was unable to walk was directed to sit down in a ditch along the road and shot dead by SS guards. It is estimated that around 6,000 prisoners died in this fashion.
May 2nd 1945
“First we discovered that there was a field of potatoes there, so we dug up some new potatoes in May and we made ourselves a fire and we boiled a milk-can of potatoes. There was a small group of us. There was a profusion of German military equipment lying around, so we got some German helmets and we ripped out the leather that fastened it to their chins and we used that as a bowl and we helped ourselves to the potatoes, and kept eating potatoes and eating potatoes until we couldn’t eat anymore. We just couldn’t believe that here was still some more of this delicious food and we were sated. We couldn’t eat anymore. This stays in my mind; we just sat there grinning at one another sort of sheepishly. I mean, this was such an incredible feeling.”
“I wanted to become American and I had the benefit of education here, which was American, and I feel American. To some extent I’m still a displaced person, but also, due to the fact that I’ve worked in the art museum for the last eight years where I give the lectures in English and I try to enunciate clearly, it’s interesting that most of my audience are tourists from out of town. The tourists come from various parts of the United States mainly, and some from foreign countries. The American tourists who come here think of me as a New Yorker because they are used to all kinds of New York accents here and they don’t realize I have an accent. New Yorkers every once in awhile will stop and say ‘Well, where do you really come from?’”