A Tribute to Sigmund Burke, 1924-2022

Sigmund Burke, Holocaust Survivor, Held Fast to Notes He Recorded in 1945

Tue, 03/15/2022 - 3:26pm

USC Shoah Foundation mourns the passing of Holocaust survivor and accomplished structural engineer Sigmund Burke, who died February 6, 2022 at nearly 98 years old. He recorded his testimony with USC Shoah Foundation in 2019, at the age of 95, as part of the Last Chance Testimony Collection initiative, USC Shoah Foundation’s race-against-time effort to record the stories and perspectives of the last remaining Holocaust survivors.

Sigmund was 21 years old in 1945 when he escaped a Nazi death march, walking and hiding in the final days of WWII until he reached the safety of U.S troops in Germany. In the days following his liberation, he wrote down his experiences in great detail.

In his later years, he spoke often of his experience and shared his hand-written records, which have enriched multiple Holocaust research and educational organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League of Orange County, California, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He repeatedly consulted these notes while being interviewed as part of the Last Chance Testimony Collection. His testimony is now one of the 55,000 contained in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

Sigmund was born Sigmund Berkovics on March 5, 1924, in Tarpa, Hungary. His parents, Jeno and Bertha, owned multiple businesses including a grocery store and tavern. Sigmund and siblings Bela, Hajnalka, and Olga grew up in an observant home; their father was president of the local synagogue and well versed in religious texts.

“I was aware of antisemitism from the very early days, even when I was 10 or 12 years old,” Sigmund said in his testimony. “Although, my father was always very positive. And he would always say that things will get better. But of course, things didn't get better.”

By the time that Sigmund was of age to attend high school, Jewish youth had been banned from doing so in Tarpa. Instead, he spent time studying in Budapest and Debrecen and eventually was able to earn a high school diploma.

In March of 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, shattering the hopes of many Hungarian Jews and refugees who had believed that the country would remain safe from Nazi incursion. Nazi persecution of Jews began immediately. The Berkovics family was forced to give up ownership of their store and tavern. At 3:00 AM on April 15, 1944, the Berkovics family heard a knock on the door. Along with thousands of other Jews from the surrounding areas, they were arrested and held in an abandoned brick factory in a nearby town. After spending a month in these hostile conditions, Sigmund, his parents, brother, sister, and nephew were put in a cattle car and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Upon their arrival at the camp, the men and women were forcibly separated. Sigmund’s mother, sister, and nephew were murdered in the gas chambers. Sigmund, his father, and brother were immediately tattooed with numbers and put to work. In his testimony, Sigmund mentioned how he found meaning through his assigned number: “I still remember it – 82830, which adds up to 21. And I said ‘21 is my lucky number and I'm going to make it.’”

Over the next year, the three men were repeatedly moved between several concentration camps, including Erlenbusch, Flossenberg, Crawinkel, Jonastal, and, finally, Ohrdruf. Each day they were forced to perform painstaking labor, including constructing barracks and digging tunnels through mountainsides. In Erlenbusch, Sigmund applied the carpentry skills he had learned in his youth to earn a job building wooden suitcases. He speculated that this assignment saved his life.

Sigmund and Bela eventually became separated from their father, and, over time, Sigmund was separated from his brother as well. In April of 1945, he embarked on what he was certain was a death march. After many grueling days, Sigmund, starving and dehydrated, decided to make an escape attempt. He quietly slipped away and walked for eight days before finding a barn and later a model airplane factory where he was able to rest and regain some of his strength. On April 11, 1945, Sigmund reached Luisentha, Germany, where he was liberated by U.S. troops. In the days following his liberation, he diligently recorded his experiences on paper.

Instead of returning to his former home in Hungary, Sigmund decided to join other survivors in immigrating to Sweden. During his year in the country, he met his wife Edith, another survivor.

He also learned that his brother, Bela, and his father had survived the war and were living safely in Hungary and Israel, respectively. Sigmund was especially surprised to learn of his father’s survival: “Well, my father was eventually taken away because he sprained his ankle and he couldn't walk. And he was put in a, what was called a revier, which is a, a place where you put people temporarily until they recover. But then-- well, my father was actually taken, taken away. And we were certain--my brother and I were certain that he, he did not survive, that he was taken somewhere where he was killed. But he wasn't. Somehow he was liberated by the Russians [sic], because they were very close.”

Through connections made with other survivors, Sigmund and Edith were able to secure passage to the U.S. Sigmund went to California while Edith settled in New York before eventually joining her husband. The two were married and had three children, Bobby and twins David and Robin.

Sigmund worked during the day and attended night school at Cal State Los Angeles, where he fulfilled a childhood dream by earning a degree in structural engineering: “That's what I said, when I was a kid back home – that I wanted to be a structural engineer. That's what I am.”

Sigmund went on to work as a layout draftsman for the American Monorail Company and later found a job at Fluor, an international construction and engineering company. At Fluor, he would work his way up to overseeing the Southern California Structural Engineering Department. He retired in 1986, after contributing decades towards projects such as refinery expansions and natural gas plant projects.

For much of his life Burke remained relatively quiet about his experiences during the war. However, in his testimony he noted that these experiences never escaped his memory; instead, they drove him towards many of his greatest accomplishments. “The fact that I was able to survive, do all the things I did, gave me this…ability to do things for myself.”

Sigmund remained a loving husband to his wife Edith until her death in 1999. He is survived by his three children; Bob Burke, David Burke, and Robin Berkovitz (Laurie Newman); and grandchildren; Justin, Josh, and Eliana.

Eli Gruen