Bill Rooz has led a very interesting life, stretching all the way back to the time when he was young.
Even before Germany invaded Mr. Rooz's native home of Berehovo, Hungary, anti-Semitism was rampant. As a way to protect himself and his fellow Jews, he joined a local group of boys around his age who, in the forests surrounding his town, would often get into fights with local anti-Semitic children. Reflecting on these events, he said, "I would come home bloody every other Saturday."
These tactics worked for a while, until anti-Semitism reached a head and Germany formally invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944. Mr. Rooz was 18 years old at that point and would therefore be tried and convicted for these acts of self-defense. A decision was made that he would move to the capital of Hungary, Budapest, to become a watchmaker.
Mr. Rooz felt a great sense of loss and uncertainty as he left his family. Yet he understood it was for his own safety. Though Mr. Rooz and his family had some understanding of the dangers the future might hold, they could not predict the severity of what was to come.
After Mr. Rooz moved to Budapest, the German army quickly advanced into Hungary.
Soon, all of Hungary was under German control, and cities were becoming Judenrein (free of Jews). As Mr. Rooz said. "At that time, all cities were becoming Judenrein. You could see that looking at newspapers from that time." During this troubling time, it became increasingly dangerous to be Jewish. Soon, Jewish businesses began to close. The shop where Mr. Rooz worked was a Jewish-owned shop. While transporting silver and other precious materials out of the shop so the Germans wouldn't confiscate them, Mr. Rooz was pulled over by a Hungarian officer. The box in his hands was confiscated, and he was sent to a local prison.
While in prison, Mr. Rooz decided he needed to tell his employer what had happened. The opportunity was given to him when his employer's wife delivered a basket of food with a napkin tucked neatly inside. He was able to write a message by burning a matchstick and using the charcoal residue as a pencil-like instrument. He then placed his remaining clock-working tools into the napkin, which would be noticed by his employer’s wife. She would read the message and then pass it on to Mr. Rooz's employer. Days later, his employer was arrested and sent to the same prison. He and his employee could only communicate during their daily exercise routine: running laps in the prison yard.
Not long after his employer arrived, Mr. Rooz and several other Jewish prisoners were called to the warden's office. They were told that they were being transferred to a special holding prison before being sent to their final destination. Mr. Rooz only spent a short time in this prison, but he learned a valuable skill there: how to fix sewing machines. This skill became an asset when he was subsequently transported to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria. He was kept alive there only because he knew how to fix the machines that the tailors used to mend clothing. Due to the terrible conditions at Mauthasuen, Mr. Rooz has very few memories he wishes to share from his time there. “I behaved like a robot," he says.
Mauthausen was the site of 100,000 deaths. The camp was entirely composed of prisoners whom the Third Reich opposed because of their religious backgrounds, politics, and other belief systems. The conditions in the camp were utterly intolerable. The prisoners were given only enough food to keep them alive until the next inspection. Those who did not pass the inspection were sent immediately to the gas chambers. The camp had very limited medical facilities. As a result, those who became sick were often sent to the gas chambers or beaten to death for not working hard enough. The camp was in operation from 1938 until the American military liberated it, including Mr. Rooz, in May 1945.
After liberation, Mr. Rooz was sent to a displaced persons camp, where he spent months recovering until he was deemed well enough to leave. He was given the option of returning back to his home, Berehovo, which had become a part of the Ukraine (after the Soviet Union annexed it), or immigrating to America, where he had relatives willing to take him. He chose the latter.
Months after immigrating to America, Mr. Rooz received an official-looking letter addressed directly to him from the President of the United States. The only word he could easily read was “GREETINGS” in bold letters. Mr. Rooz quickly rushed off to his aunt, with whom he and his sister lived. "Look, look!” he said to her. “The President is welcoming me to America!" Sadly, this was not the case. The letter, in fact, was a draft notice for the Korean War. Having survived the Holocaust and Mauthausen, he was now being thrown into war again. After completing his tour of duty, Mr. Rooz returned to America to live in California with a friend. This state has been his home ever since, although he returned to his hometown of Berehovo to help his brother and his brother’s family to leave the Soviet Union.
Chene, Evelyn le. Mauthausen. Methuen 1971
Bill Rooz, interviewed by Ian Glazman, JFCS San Fransisco Office,
January 28, 2011
Bill Rooz, interviewed by Ian Glazman, KFC on El Camino Real,
February 5, 2011
"Glossary" . The Next Chapter Project Binder. 243