April 06, 2015
Cultural comrades: Gertruda Zemelis sings an old Hungarian folk song from her childhood to Dr. George Brent before his March 25 talk at Covenant Village of Northbrook.
— Dr. George Brent stood patiently at the front of the room as his peers meandered in, a large map of Hungary on the screen behind him.
Gertruda Zemelis slowly approached him and started singing a Hungarian folk song from when she was a girl, a tune Dr. Brent remembered from his childhood in the same country as a young Jewish boy. It was a light, joyful exchange on March 25 at the retirement community Covenant Village of Northbrook but one that precipitated the darker story to come that morning.
For the past 60 years, Dr. Brent’s life has been one of hard work, determination, luck, love and success. On the surface, he’s had a career like many dentists: practiced for 50 years and taught prosthodontics at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry. His personal life took the path of many as well: got married, had four daughters and remarried.
On the surface, Dr. Brent, 85, has had a wonderful but unremarkable life. But when you dig deeper, when he starts talking about his first 20 years of existence, you realize this is a man whose success came out of extraordinary circumstances.
This is a man who saw evil first-hand and the worst of what humans are capable of. And he not only saw it, he experienced it every day for a year.
Dr. Brent shared his story a few weeks before Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which begins in the evening of April 15 until the evening of April 16. Here’s how he tells it.
Dr. Brent was born George Balasa to Steven, a pharmacist, and Dawn in what was formerly Czechoslovakia in 1929.
“I was the prince of the family, very spoiled,” said Dr. Brent, who also had a younger brother, Peter. “I had a wonderful life.”
By 1944, the region where Dr. Brent lived in Czechoslovakia was ceded to Hungary and all Jews were required to wear a yellow star. At 7 a.m. on May 20, 1944, Hungarian police knocked on the door and told Dr. Brent’s family they had an hour to gather their belongings to move to the ghetto that concentrated all of the Jews in his hometown. They didn’t resist, knowing any opposition was futile.
“Jews at that point were accepting that they were second-class citizens or no citizens at all,” Dr. Brent said.
They spent two days in a barren apartment with no furniture and a few mattresses on the floor. By that Wednesday, the soldiers lined up everybody in the ghetto and marched them to the train station, he said, where they were put in a holding pen typically used to keep animals before they were slaughtered.
“I guess it was telling what that meant for us,” Dr. Brent said.
Everybody was crammed into a boxcar train, with 80-100 people in each car, he said. Each car was given two buckets: one for water and one to use as a bathroom.
The passengers were unsure of their destination but they were ultimately headed for Auschwitz, a German concentration camp where ultimately at least 1.1 million Jews were murdered. The doors to the train car opened and Dr. Brent saw a mass of SS soldiers and prisoners. They began separating people: men, women without young children and older children in one line and mothers with children, the elderly and disabled in another.
It was the last time Dr. Brent saw his mother and younger brother. They were presumably sent to die.
Dr. Brent could see the chimneys in the distance billowing with smoke, putting a putrid, awful smell into the air. He later learned those were the crematoriums, where the bodies were burned.
Dr. Brent was separated from his father, who he later learned was sent to Warsaw, Poland, to help clean up a ghetto that was destroyed. Dr. Brent had to learn how to adapt in a new and inhumane environment.
The barracks he lived in didn’t have a bathroom, just a bucket outside for everyone to use during the night. Breakfast was billed as coffee but was really just a brown or green-colored liquid. The good days were when it was actually warm, Dr. Brent said. Lunch was “soup,” a brown liquid that, if they were lucky, contained potato peels and pieces of unidentified meat.
Because they were starving, the prisoners often ate grass or clay, facing beatings if the SS soldiers caught them, he said. A lot of prisoners traded their food for cigarettes, which were a hot commodity in the prison camp. But the worst part was the lack of water in the sweltering hot barracks.
“There’s nothing worse than thirst,” Dr. Brent said. “You can deal with hunger, maybe, but not thirst.”
Dr. Brent’s father told him he had a gold bridge in his mouth that he broke off to trade for water, he said.
Dr. Brent credits his uncle, who was also at Auschwitz, for saving his life at the camp. His uncle gave him a tip: make yourself scarce in the barracks. Stay away from them as much as you can so that you aren’t there when they do a selection for who’s going to the gas chambers.
Dr. Brent was eventually transferred to two additional concentration camps to work, ultimately being liberated by the Americans at Ebensee concentration camp in Austria. He later discovered his uncle died three days before the camp was liberated.
Upon liberation, the prisoners were given food, something that they indulged in but their bodies did not thank them for. Dr. Brent had been hungry for so long that his stomach got used to the new state and he became very ill with dysentery and diarrhea once he began eating regularly.
He was sent by train to Budapest, Hungary, where two of his aunts lived. Dr. Brent later received a message from the Red Cross that his father was alive but very sick with tuberculosis in a German hospital. Determined to reunite with his dad, Dr. Brent joined a Zionist group so he could travel to Germany to see his dad after two and a half years.
Because his father was so sick, Dr. Brent was placed in a displaced person’s camp — a move that would seal his fate as a dentist. Educators from World ORT — a Jewish educational and training organization — were at the camp and insisted he learn a trade or a skill so that he would be more employable upon leaving. Dr. Brent learned how to be a dental technician.
Seeking a better and more prosperous life than he felt he could attain in Europe, Dr. Brent headed to the United States, arriving in New York City on Oct. 1, 1949. He was 20 years old. Dr. Brent ultimately traveled to Chicago where his uncle lived. His father followed in 1951.
In 1950, the Korean War broke out. Not wanting to be drafted for overseas duty, Dr. Brent took control and joined the Air Force, hoping he would remain stateside. Since he already had training as a dental technician, Dr. Brent was sent to work in a Air Force dental laboratory.
Following his military service, Dr. Brent enrolled in dental school at UIC and continued working for a dentist he met while serving in the Air Force, graduating with his D.D.S. in 1961. After graduation, he stayed on to teach prosthodontics, eventually being named associate professor, and was in private practice for 50 years.
He retired in 2010 and now spends his time speaking to various groups about his experience during World War II.
“I want everyone to be aware of the horrors of bigotry, prejudice and anti-Semitism,” said Dr. Brent, a father of four and grandfather of eight who lives in Wilmette, Illinois, with wife, Nancy. “It’s terrible what it can lead to.”